Studio: Dark Sky Films
Director: Travis Stevens
Writer: Travis Stevens
Producer: Nicola Goelzhaeuser, Giles Edwards, Greg Newman
Stars: Phil Brooks, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Sarah Brooks, Elissa Dowling, Karen Woditsch, Travis Delgado, Marshall Bean, Anish Jethmalani, Bishop Stevens, Tonya Kay
While renovating a haunted house, ghosts of the women who died there expose a selfish family man for who he really is.
From what I know of his in-ring alter ego as ¡®C.M. Punk,¡¯ and from what he shows in his feature film debut as an actor, Phil Brooks¡¯ persona works well for playing Don Koch. The role requires seeing him as alternately endearing, annoying, often clueless, and occasionally cunning. Brooks turns on and turns off these heel/babyface traits as easily as blinking his eyes. As Don, Brooks can be friendly, fumbling, or fearsome. Even with the impression of a tattooed wrestler standing front and center, it¡¯s not out of the question to accept Brooks as a ¡°bad boy¡± of investment banking whose alpha male arrogance exposed him as an unfaithful husband and greedy embezzler. This is definitely a guy good at getting in over his head and then forcibly fighting his way out with frustrated fists.
Don¡¯s second chance comes courtesy of a suburban Illinois fixer-upper. While his pregnant wife waits back in the city, Don plays DIY handyman by turning a 100-year-old house into a fresh start home. He might need more help than Home Depot and YouTube can provide however. The former brothel¡¯s weirdly rotting walls and outlets leaking goo are only the tip of a troubling iceberg. The apparently haunted house also comes with disturbing nightmares, shadowy apparitions, and randomly rolling marbles.
What would a ¡°welcome to the neighborhood¡± sequence be without a coterie of locals introducing themselves individually? Cluttering up an essentially one-man show with characters of debatable narrative value, ¡°Girl on the Third Floor¡± puts several stones in its shoe that pain the first third¡¯s pace.
An attorney stops by for a brief moment to drop off some papers while dropping exposition about Don avoiding prison for defrauding his clients. A bartender serves a similar purpose, although he earns a second scene since he contributes two crumbs of backstory. The revelation about Don¡¯s drinking does redundant work since the cooler of beers in his kitchen and suspicious wife on the phone already did that job. Same with the bartender¡¯s second scene where he repeats what he already said about the house¡¯s history, but for the benefit of Don¡¯s buddy who arrives to bump up the body count ¨C I mean, help Don with repairs.
A progressive pastor who lives across the street throws her scarf on the rack too. She doesn¡¯t matter much until further into the film. For now, she fills the function of a person more skilled at intermittently raising ominous eyebrows than dealing in straightforward facts. You know her type. Although the conclusion lets her off the hook with a vague explanation, ¡®Old Lady Exposition¡¯ could end the movie at the 10-minute mark if she¡¯d simply stop speaking in fortune cookie riddles.
Slow starts are par for the course with suspense-building thrillers. ¡°Girl on the Third Floor¡± chugs a little harder than usual though, as it stunts initial speed with more scenes than necessary for establishing an atmosphere of mundane normalcy. When not entertaining inconsequential visitors, Don jogs with his dog, puts up drywall, and takes time out to peruse porn on his phone. Paranormal activity amps up eventually, but ¡°Girl on the Third Floor¡± takes casually curved detours to get there.
Don¡¯s road to reclaiming his life hits its own detour when he meets Sarah. Part specter, part seductress, Sarah symbolizes every vice Don has ever indulged in. He promised to change, but Don reasons his hard work should be rewarded with a relapse, revealing a zebra with stripes that never truly vanished.
Through Sarah, ¡°Girl on the Third Floor¡± temporarily transitions from haunted house horror to ¡°girlfriend from Hell¡± thriller. For Don, his tryst was one night of ¡°don¡¯t tell anyone¡± fun. For Sarah, it¡¯s a reason to return whether Don wants her around or not. And he definitely does not. But it takes a collapsed ceiling revealing a secret attic for Don to discover Sarah is only one part of a bigger mystery involving a disfigured hag, two unsolved murders, and an impossibly large beating heart hidden behind a warped wall.
Once ¡°Girl on the Third Floor¡± trades its first act foundation of cinematic convention for a second act of thematic reflection, shed skin reveals bones of infinitely more intrigue. Much like the house, the story¡¯s skeleton reconstitutes with stronger limbs of sinister intent. Lighter tones recede so darker moods can occupy that space instead. By tearing down Don figuratively and literally through an unsubtle metaphor mirrored in the house, the film finally finds a slice of weirdly wicked chills with a bizarrely ferocious bite.
As director Travis Stevens put it, Don isn¡¯t corrupted by the house so much as he is exposed by it. Traditional strokes of body horror, mental madness, and ghost story ghoulishness are pigments in a larger character portrait condemning cowardice, selfishness, and abusive authority.
For good and for bad, subtext doesn¡¯t consistently poke through plotting. That¡¯s convenient for anyone averse to commentary mixing with entertainment. Yet this also lessens the film¡¯s intended impact when surprising sights of splatter mute intangible material underneath.
I¡¯ve seen other coverage calling ¡°Girl on the Third Floor¡± funny, but I don¡¯t see where this hard humor supposedly comes from. Unless Phil Brooks doing an occasional pratfall after being unexpectedly sprayed with gunk counts as comedy, anyone expecting slide whistles and horn honks will have a tough time finding a laugh.
I don¡¯t understand criticisms of the last act either, as that is where ¡°Girl on the Third Floor¡± meets its potential as a tip-top thriller. After such slow going to get out of its setup stage, the movie at last cuts the brake lines with visceral viciousness you can¡¯t turn away from. Gruesome milieus not normally depicted in similar films come with unsettling connotations aligned with the fiction¡¯s final revelations. The movie would be better served by spreading its eeriness evenly across an imbalanced runtime instead of exclusively reserving it for an energetic ending. Yet even at only 75% effectiveness in terms of tone and themes, polished styling in cinematography, performances, and set design pulls together a competent haunter with more substance than most.
Review Score: 65