Written by: Trent Haaga, Paul Johnstone, Ben Parker (story), Travis Stevens (screenplay)
Directed by: Travis Stevens
Starring: Phil Brooks, Sarah Brooks, and Tieste Kelly Dunn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Home is where hell is.
Genre fans have become quite familiar with the name Travis Stevens during the past decade. As the founder of Snowfort Productions (arguably the most vital production company this side of Blumhouse), heís helped to shepherd some of the most exciting horror efforts to the screen in recent years in A Horrible Way to Die, We Are Still Here, Starry Eyes, XX, and much more. Itís something of an event, then, that heís finally stepped behind the camera to properly direct his own feature with Girl on the Third Floor, a twisted little haunted house movie that evokes the ghosts of a bygone era of filmmaking. And, look, I know we say that about a lot of genre efforts lately, but Stevens has conjured up a very specific, perverse strain of vintage Eurotrash for this one thatís just wicked to see.
Girl on the Third Floor particularly recalls those twisted, psychological portraits of madness set against the backdrop of inexplicable terrors and bacchanalian sex, where a characterís descent into their own hell becomes as dreadful as the circumstances that drive them to the brink of oblivion. Repressed horrors are unleashed, peeling away one manís layers of self-destructive impulses, only to reveal that his wickedness carries a misogynistic streak thatís echoed throughout time.
Ex-lawyer Don Koch (Phil Brooks, aka wrestlingís CM Punk) has moved to the suburbs, where heís taken on the task of renovating and repairing a new home as his wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) prepares to give birth to their first child. Itís a ramshackle joint where various sorts of pus and ooze secretes from the walls and pipes, heralding the supernatural horrors lurking within its walls. Koch remains largely oblivious to this, though, as we come to learn that his move to the suburbs is a means of escape from past sins and transgressions, some of which nearly landed him in a federal prison. This is a new start, he insists, a chance to turn the page to a new chapter where he can be a devoted husband and father. And then a young, mysterious girl named Sarah (Sarah Brooks) strolls into his yard one night, and he yields to temptation and unwittingly forges his own crucible of horror that forces him to reckon with the man he once wasóand, apparently, still is.
The first hour of Girl on the Third Floor is a strikingly intimate riff on the haunted house genre. Most of it hovers around Donís tedious renovation project, which is punctuated by Skype conversations with Liz and the occasional interactions with his long-time friend (Travis Delgado), a local bartender (Marshall Bean), and his new neighbor (Karen Woditsch). The latter two speak obliquely about his new home, coyly referencing its sordid past but never explicitly revealing the gory details. Their wayward glances and off-hand comments accent the bizarre activity unfolding within the house, such as his discovery of an entirely hidden floor when the roof collapses. Other signs are more subtle, like the fleeting glimpses of something strange in the various mirrors lining the halls. Stevens sharply keeps these visuals slightly obscured, heightening the mystery as the house continues to spill forth globs of strange viscera and (perhaps even more disconcertingly) marbles. You start to wonder if maybe David Cronenberg or Clive Barker was the realtor here.
Stevens also foregrounds Don here. Itís one thing to craft a standard haunted house thriller where the parlor tricks overwhelm the story or character work; itís an entirely different, and I assume more difficult, thing to ground it in a genuinely compelling story. Girl on the Third Floor pulls it off with aplomb thanks to a terrific performance from Brooks, whose transition from the wrestling ring to the silver screen is pretty seamless. Thereís about five minutes where you have to calibrate your brain and get used to the idea of ďC.M. Punk, film actor,Ē but he assumes the role of Don pretty well. His Punk persona always had a little edge to it, and any great wrestling performer (as he very much was) is capable of making an audience believe in a latent darkness. That principleís at work here because you sense a repressed dark side to Don, even before it comes to the forefront with whispers about his past and his penchant for adultery.
At first, itís a little off-putting. Whenever a horror movie protagonist is scumbag, you run the risk of it becoming cartoonish to the point where the audience delights in their misery. Girl on the Third Floor resists this because Brooks doesnít play Don as a one-note asshole: he knows heís a fuck-up and genuinely wants to do better, but those demonsóboth the literal and figurative onesótug at his psyche, fraying them at the edges until he breaks. Maybe Iím just inclined to like Punk because of his wrestling history, but I found his turn as Don fascinating and slippery. Itís almost as if youíre not sure what to think of him: is he the victim of supernatural chicanery or just yet another alpha male meathead whose libido and arrogance prove to be a dangerous combination?
In a clever turn of events, the film actually tackles this question head on. Without spoiling too much, letís say Girl on the Third Floor takes a pronounced but natural turn when Liz starts uncovering those sordid details during a climactic frenzy of gore, sleaze, and righteous vengeance. The film ascends to a loopy plane dominated by dream logic, with characters fliting in and out of time and space to reveal the houseís long-festering history of injustice and horror. Stevensís vision here is bold and uninhibited, standing in stark contrast to the restraint on display during the build-up. Itís here he unleashes gnarly, inhuman creatures and indulges sexual rituals overseen by a cadre of perverts leering from above, all while a young girl plays off in the corner, herself an unwitting victim to the houseís terror. The script is a little ungraceful in untangling his mess, but I like that Stevens doesnít untangle all of it: The Girl on the Third Floor leaves you with the same impression as those old 70s Eurohorror films, where the disorienting feeling was more important than any underpinning logic. Its loose, tattered threads are a feature, not a bug.
What is clear is the smart, subversive turn that sees Sarah Brooks completely steal the show from her headlining co-star. When the film introduces Sarah, sheís practically a succubus, existing purely as some kind of karmic spite meant to wreck Donís new, peaceful existence. Slowly, however, these roles reverse when it becomes clear that Sarah is a karmic emissary of sorts, sent to right some historic wrongs that Don is perpetuating. For an hour, Girl on the Third Floor is the story of a haunted man wrestling with personal vices; for its final 30 minutes, itís the story of a haunted woman seeking justice for the way those same misogynistic vices have historically victimized women.
Sarahís growing presenceóand the conscience she bringsóupends the film and adds a thoughtful dimension to it. S. Brooksís performance is captivating as she transforms from an apparently soulless sexpot to a dark angel seeking righteous justice. The climax especially tasks her with some tricky moments as the story grows more unhinged, meaning she, too, must rise to meet the insane wavelength unfolding around her. That she does so without losing sight of Sarahís tragic nature is crucial to the filmís effectiveness. Again, hereís an opportunity for Stevens and company to just put on an especially fucked-up 70s Eurohorror-by-way-of-Hellraiser routine, but thereís more to this movie than its unrelenting carnage once its women take center stage.
But if youíre here for the bloodshed, rest assured that Girl on the Third Floor delivers a fantasia of macabre practical effects work. This is a downright gross movie, and I donít feel like we really have enough of those anymore: itís sticky, slimy, crusted over with mold. It just feels plain dirty, if not downright invasive to boot. Stevensís camera prowls about with a sinister, voyeuristic intent, cleverly emphasizing Donís vulnerability throughout and subtly foreshadowing his imminent doom. Before Stevens reduces Don to a footnote in what only seems to be his story, he subtly suggests that this man is no match for the forces unfolding around him with clever framing that underscores the houseís looming presence. For a debut feature, this is remarkable: Girl on the Third Floor is a movie that just sticks with you because itís such an impeccably crafted, guttural experience from the opening frame. Stevens was already a crucial genre force before this effort; this simply confirms that he's also a crucial genre voice, one that I hope we'll keep hearing from for years to come.
Girl on the Third Floor is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Dark Sky Films. Special features include a teaser, a trailer, and an audio commentary with Stevens.
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