US | 2019 | Directed by Travis Stevens
Logline: A husband with a dodgy past is renovating a house with an even dodgier history in preparation for his wife and imminent baby only to have the house turn his life upside-down.
Director Travis Stevens is a successful producer, with some twenty-six titles since 2009. His production company has been involved in some of my favourite genre flicks of the past ten years, in particular Cheap Thrills and Starry Eyes, and also the documentary Jodoroswky’s Dune. This is his first feature as a director and screenwriter, using a story by Paul Johnstone and Ben Parker. It’s a small, but dense movie, set almost entirely inside a cramped and dilapidated mansion in Frankfurt Illinois, with only a few central roles, and it’s soaked in a rich vintage atmosphere.
Don (Philip Brooks) arrives with his dog at a run-down suburban Victorian-era home he’s bought with his wife and immediately cracks open a beer. His wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) has remained back in the city, pregnant and concerned her husband has fallen off the wagon, waiting for him to complete the required renovations. He’s got his mate Milo (Travis Delgado) due in a day or so to assist, but shortly after arriving Don finds icky sticky weirdness in the walls and even grosser stuff on the floor.
The local pastor (Karen Woditsch) also pays Don a visit, letting him know the house has a dark history of having its way with its occupants. Then spunky next-door neighbour, Sarah (Sarah Brooks), saunters into play, and Don just can’t help himself. Later Liz Facetimes Don, keeping him on his toes, spying an empty bottle on a mantlepiece, and then she thinks she sees a mysterious figure glide past in the background. Don assures Liz everything is hunky dory. He’s aware there’s something unusual about the house, but he has no idea of what the house is capable of, what it’s already been up to, and what it intends to reveal and pervert.
Right from the start Girl On The Third Floor oozes style; the opening montage and the full-tilt Gothic font for the title credits, the sound design is especially effective, and the edging, creeping, prowling camerawork and cinematography really gives the movie a distinct Euro retro vibe. These are the elements that make the movie memorable, along with some excellent practical effects and gore gags, in particular one involving a rogue marble and a Stanley knife.
But where Girl On The Third Floor is let down - and this is a major gripe - is the casting of former wrestler and mixed martial arts champion Phil Brooks, known to sports fans as CM Punk. Brooks has the chiseled looks and cartoon facial expressions that Bruce Campbell made a career from, but he can’t act his way out of a paper bag (not that Campbell is a great actor, but you get my drift). Brooks is more wooden than a log, whilst the other Brooks, of the feminine persuasion, works wonders on the alluring front, but she doesn’t possess the menacing chops to deliver what’s required as the movie moves into third act.
Indeed, it’s the third act that suffers, as the surrealism is ramped up, and in all due respect, there are some great moments, but the narrative focus frays between characters and the obscure symbolism - all that oozing mucus (semen??) and Lovecraftian filth - that occupies much of the movie’s first half becomes less relevant, almost a red herring. While the creepy and grotesque “nymph” with the toothy grin that stretches from chin to crown becomes, essentially, a non-event.
These scripting and casting issues aside, the nightmarish mise-en-scene is solid, and some of the horror imagery was terrific, especially the eye peering up through the bathroom sinkhole - that was an absolute doozy. With a stronger script and a more convincing lead Girl On The Third Floor may have ended up one of my faves for the year. Dems da breaks. But hey, I look forward to Travis Stevens’ next horror.