As his father continues to attempt to rejuvenate his seemingly never-ending “Dead” series, Cameron Romero follows up his debut “The Screening” with another slice of familiar horror in “Staunton Hill”. Although this may sound a little cynical, the film really is pretty basic stuff, being a by the numbers “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” knock off, with youngsters being chased and killed by psychotic rednecks in the rural backwoods. Still, Romero shows himself to be a better director than most, and the film benefits from a decent cast of half recognisable faces, if not names, including Cristen Coppen (“Road Trip”), David Rountree (“XXX2”, and who also scripted), Kiko Ellsworth (from the television series “Heroes” and “Dexter”) and Charlie Bodin (briefly in “Transformer”).
The plot is familiar to say the least, set in Virginia in the autumn of 1969 and following five student types who are hitchhiking their way across country to the political rallies taking place in Washington. After finding themselves ditched at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, they accept a ride from a friendly seeming stranger, though his truck unfortunately breaks down a few miles along the road. The group decide to head off on foot, and come across a run down farm, with a comfy looking barn to stay the night in. The next morning, they meet the inhabitants of the farm, who just happen to be a couple of quite obviously crazy old women and their disfigured, mentally challenged brute of a son. As is usually the case, the weirdly religious family has a sinister secret, resulting in the expected murders and hacking off of limbs.
It really is quite amazing how little effort was put into making “Staunton Hill” different in any way to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Wrong Turn” or any of the many, many other killer hillbilly films of late. The plot unfolds entirely according to formula, with almost every beat and development being recognisable and predictable, and with Romero going so far as to blatantly lift scenes and motifs from Tobe Hooper’s original and its ensuing remakes. Perhaps more importantly, the film also features Kathy Lampkin, who plays pretty much exactly the same overweight wacko she did in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”, meaning that anyone who falls asleep or drinks too much during “Staunton Hill” may well wake up and forget which of the two they were watching.
Of course, originality is a rare, rare commodity indeed in the modern American horror genre, and so “Staunton Hill”, which really isn’t any worse an offender than its equally unimaginative peers, probably shouldn’t be judged too harshly. Romero is certainly a competent enough film maker, directing with a raw, stark style not unlike that of his dear old dad, and managing to generate the same sense of unease and backwoods menace that underscored the original “Night of the Living Dead” (which he unwisely makes a pointless gag reference to at one stage). Although eminently conventional, the film is reasonably suspenseful and well paced, aside from some pointless flashback scenes to earlier events which Romero presumably throws in for some kind of emotional punch, perhaps mistakenly believing that the viewer cares about the thinly sketched characters. The film also has a vague thread of social commentary running through it, touching on racism and politics, and while this is never really developed, it does help both to ground things and to add a hint of depth.
Where the film does score quite highly is in that it really is a grim, squalid affair, being unpleasant and creepy in its early stages, and building effectively to its later scenes of unflinching brutality. It certainly does get very nasty as things go on, with plenty of dismemberment, skinning and scalping, as the poor suffering characters are aptly treated like so much meat. As with “Texas”, when the violence comes, it is sudden and shocking, and Romero not only delivers the gore goods, but manages to create a real sense of threat and madness, and as a result the film has more impact than other, less well crafted torture porn epics.
“Staunton Hill” should certainly be enjoyed by fans of backwoods shockers, and it manages to tick pretty much all the right boxes. Whilst not nearly as distinctive as his father’s breakthrough works, and while it doesn’t really stand out from the crowd, it is definitely a superior example of the form, and bodes well enough for Romero junior’s career.
G. Cameron Romero (director) / David Rountree (screenplay)
CAST: Kathy Lamkin … Louise Staunton
Cristen Coppen … Jordan
David Rountree … Cole
Kiko Ellsworth … Boone
Christine Carlo … Raina
Paula Rhodes … Trish