Lair, a demonic possession riff from first-time feature director Adam Ethan Crow, opens with a couple of vicious murders and then commits a cardinal filmmaking sin: Hiring Oded Fehr for five out of 90 minutes of running time before unceremoniously forgetting about him. There are rules for shooting a movie. Give your actors headroom, don’t yell “cut” before the action’s done, resist the urge to zoom and never cast an actor like Fehr as anything less than a straight-up supporting character. Crow gets off to a bad start. Fehr plays Ben, the movie’s fall guy, behind bars for brutally slaying his family; he claims that the devil made him do it. A likely story. Exit Fehr, stage right.
Crow is making a horror film, of course, so it is a likely story, likely enough that Dr. Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson), a professor of the occult, has a vested interest in Ben’s plight. They’re friends, insomuch as well-intended people leave evil artifacts in their friend’s custody, which Steven did prior to Lair’s opening scene. Feeling guilty over his part in the tragedy, Steven sets out to prove that while Ben’s hands swung the golf club, the heart driving them belonged to something, or something, else—something evil. He makes for London, rents his dead father’s flat to an unsuspecting family—Maria (Aislinn De’ath), her girlfriend Carly (Alana Wallace), and her daughters, teenage Josephine (Anya Newell) and winsome Lilly (Lara Mount)—decorates it with other cursed objects and monitors events via security cameras, waiting for devilry to strike.
Crow conceives of Steven as a devout asshole, a role Johnson embraces with a wry gusto. He’s effortlessly unctuous, a casual prick. Whether it’s a personality trait or a reaction to Ben’s grim circumstances is ambiguous, but Johnson chews up dialogue and spits out insults with relaxed delivery verging on delightful. “Giving a fuck doesn’t really go with my outfit,” he grumbles to Coulson (Alexandra Gilbreath), Ben’s attorney, who relishes her hatred toward Steven but extends an olive branch anyways. They both want the same thing, after all.
Lair sets all these balls in motion in about 20 minutes without pausing to let out any slack, which works to the movie’s benefit. Crow has a sense of purpose, a destination in mind and a plan for getting there: Mix The Frighteners with Paranormal Activity, add in a dash of skepticism and spice up proceedings with loads of snarky one-liners for Johnson. As the brief promises us, spooky business starts to happen at the flat, but once it does, Lair starts dragging against expectations. What Crow lacks is a clear idea of what to do once he gets his cast in the same location. Steven puts blighted bric-a-brac on the family’s shelves, half-heartedly and at the behest of his reluctant accomplice, the spiritualist Ola (Kashif O’Connor), lays down protective coats of salt to keep them all from harm; Steven catches eerie images on camera; Steven treats himself to spying on Maria bathing. Rinse, lather, repeat.
The cycle gets old. It also robs Lair of its best asset, which is Johnson’s performance and his surly disposition. He’s such a hoot as the lead after spending so many movies playing minor characters—see Hellboy for one of his best—that his gradual relegation from active participant to passive observer sucks the oxygen out of the plot. It’s not that De’ath, Wallace, Newell and Mount aren’t capable, or that Crow can’t stage good scares and excessive displays of gushing blood. But Johnson has such grouchy magnetism, and Steven owns so much responsibility in Lair’s story, that benching him effectively neutralizes the film. It’s rendered generic.
Just as Johnson has it in him to carry a production like this, stepping into a hardboiled pseudo-detective part with obvious comfort, Crow has it in him to make a cohesive and creepy horror film—and not only that, but to differentiate it from other films in its niche. But Lair isn’t that film. It’s a film with lots of creative energy that runs out of steam. And Fehr.
Director: Adam Ethan Crow
Writer: Adam Ethan Crow
Starring: Corey Johnson, Kashif O’Conner, Aislinn De’ath, Alana Wallace, Anya Newell, Lara Mount, Alexandra Gilbreath, Oded Fehr
Release Date: November 9, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.