“Back at the Staircase” begins with a thud – by design, and the only one you’ll hear in a film that lands its punches as cleanly as Drew Britton does in his second feature. If that sounds a bit harsh considering that it’s the sound of Barbara, the unseen elder of the family at the center of the pitch-black comedy, falling down a flight of stairs…well, that seems like something writer/director might appreciate, seeing how much he enjoys watching the clan scramble for supremacy while Barbara rests in a coma she may or may not come out of.
“I wish you hadn’t met my family and friends like this,” Ian (Logan Lark) tells his girlfriend Jody (Leonora Pitts), just after the accident, with a tone that shows less care for his family’s emotions than hers. Perhaps that’s because he knows the family operates best in chaos, able to put aside their huge personal differences – all cousins to one another rather than siblings – to train their focus on one thing, though that thing still can be seen very differently from person to person. You’d think that everyone is in a panic from the opening scene of “Back at the Staircase,” as Tricia (Jennifer LaFleur) tries futilely to drive her pick-up out of the mud to get to the hospital to see how Barbara is doing after being taken there by ambulance the night before. But as she pulls out, with Ian’s help putting his back into getting the wheels unstuck, Britton pulls back to reveal that the rest of the clan shows varying levels of concern, with the effete Phillip (Stephen Plunkett) quickly assuming the responsibility of calling people to inform them they won’t be having a party in the afternoon as planned so as not to engage with his actual relatives, and the mischievous Margaret (Mickey O’Hagan) not-so-quietly lurking in the background, having trouble figuring out how to occupy herself.
Bonded by blood, but little else, the fact that Barbara’s house is in the middle of nowhere makes “Back at the Staircase” one of the scariest variations on the “cabin in the woods” tale possible, except no axes or supernatural monsters are involved – only a rapier wit and inner demons. While one suspects Britton and co-writer Lark developed a long personal biographies for each of the characters, none of it is ever uttered onscreen, with the film existing strictly in the present as you can tell of how resentments have built up over the years in the way the family members interact with one another. Using Jody, an observer from her days as a consumer buying habits specialist, as a way into this house of horrors, Britton and Lark find tension not only between the characters, but in the enigmatic trickle of details they parse out to both the newcomer to the family — and by extension, the audience – as to what exactly happened the night before to Barbara and why the family is unlikely to ever visit the hospital together.
The ability to have the clan talk in circles without actually saying anything of importance to each other while telling you all you need to know about them is impressive, as is cinematographer Quinn Hester’s often frenetic camerawork that races around to capture the sensation that everyone inside the house is treading water, turning the single-location set film into a whirlpool. And while nearly everyone in “Back at the Staircase” thinks they have each other’s number, Britton actually does, with the film turning into an actor’s showcase as a talented ensemble sinks their teeth into their parts even deeper than the characters bite back at each other. Make no mistake, this film leaves a mark.