Horror traditionally has a unique capability of rising to the moment. Given, perhaps, its long-established mission to shock and titillate, the genre has acutely been able to pinpoint the social fears and taboos of a period in time, be it female sexuality triggering Norman Bates’ violent misogyny in Psycho, rampant consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or racial retribution in Candyman. Of course, with every generation-defining classic comes 20 cheap imitators cashing in on a trend—or what eventually becomes one. Recently, for every film that tries to emulate Get Out, we inevitably end up with our fair share of ill-conceived flicks like Antebellum and Skin.
Unfortunately, Jerren Lauder’s Shudder Original movie Stay Out of the Attic is no exception to this rule. The film follows a three-person moving company, started by team leader Schillinger (Ryan Francis) to valiantly aid ex-cons such as himself, as they pack up a creepy old mansion. The elderly owner (Michael Flynn) offers a large sum of cash in exchange for the team to swiftly empty the expansive abode over the course of a single evening. The old man has only one demand: Stay Out of the Fucking Attic! (The team is also warned to avoid the basement, which is left out presumably because it would’ve made the title too long).
Anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie—or read the title of this film—would have misgivings about this job, and fellow movers Imani (Morgan Alexandria) and Carlos (Bryce Fernelius) are right to quickly suspect the unspeakable horrors housed within the stereotypically spooky forbidden rooms. However, after what seems like an eternity of moving-day montages comes the film’s attempt to genuinely shock viewers: A tandemly dull and tactless unraveling of a Nazi plotline that features real-life war criminals alongside garden-variety boogeymen as the principle antagonists, yielding a pointless if not overtly offensive result.
While the movers are presented as an unlikely trio to survive a horror film due to their racial and political differences, the film’s attempts to subvert expectations ultimately reduce the characters to dull caricatures. Its noble ambitions of social commentary register as basic at best and tone-deaf at worst. Highlighting how marginalized people—like Black woman Imani and Latino single father Carlos—are incarcerated for far less than their white counterparts, then neglecting to explore those elements of their characters reads less as critique and more like mere set dressing. This is made uncomfortably apparent when Schillinger reveals his neo-Nazi tattoos, explaining that he joined the Aryan Brotherhood in prison in order to ensure protection.
It doesn’t help that the film’s attempts at offering genuine commentary are undercut by MADtv sketch-caliber characterizations. It doesn’t matter much that Imani’s position as girlfriend of reformed neo-Nazi Schillinger could potentially render her untrustworthy, when said character is a dead ringer for Regina Hall in the Scary Movie franchise and changes motivation/disposition from scene to scene anyway. Poor Carlos is so two-dimensional that there is little to distinguish his performance aside from the occasional shriek followed by blubbering dialogue. Alexandria and Fernelius at least fully commit to the tepid parts they are assigned to play, while Francis’ affectless delivery is unconvincing and oscillates wildly between moral indifference and vehemence—yet he’s expected to carry the film as the ostensible savior.
There is an undeniable similarity between Schillinger, a seemingly reformed neo-Nazi, and Ed Norton’s portrayal of Derek Vineyard in American History X. Both films suffer from the pitfall of platforming “rehabilitated” racists and relegating the subjects of their ethnic terrorism to clichéd roles. However, Stay Out of the Attic is shockingly even less concerned with what merits accountability and how the tenets of Nazism permeate culture at large. Instead, it aims to shock through a strictly skin-deep approach, evident in an obtusely literal scene where Schillinger cuts an inked swastika emblem right off of his own chest. When atoning for past grave transgressions, it’s only fair we afford the neo-Nazis the ability to look badass, right?
Despite (or perhaps due to) having four writers contributing to the script, Stay Out of the Attic is disjointed and incongruous, with thematic ties to twin experimentation, eugenic science and the medicinal properties of the optic nerve that never connect to reveal anything substantial. There are obvious aspirations to have the film confront uncomfortable truisms concerning how our culture safeguards the same villains that were deemed reprehensible during the Nuremberg Trials in the 1940s. But in the end, Stay Out of the Attic strays from any morally relevant resolve, opting to portray the victims of scientific racism as a slew of inhuman zombies that must be mowed down.
Director: Jerren Lauder
Writers: Julie Auerbach, Jesse Federman, Jason Scott Goldberg, Jerren Lauder
Stars: Morgan Alexandria, Ryan Francis, Bryce Fernelius, Michael Flynn, Avery Pizzuto
Release Date: March 11, 2021 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.