Renovating an old house is a major undertaking in the best of circumstances. And when the house in question is a haunted former house of ill-repute with a bad reputation around the neighborhood, it’s an even dicier proposition. But that’s not going to stop the intrepid Dan Koch (Phil “C.M. Punk” Brooks)—a disgraced businessman, adulterous husband to a pregnant wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and secret binge-drinker—from giving it the old college try in Girl on the Third Floor.
The directorial debut from Travis Stevens—who has a producing resume that boasts titles like We Are Still Here, Jodorowsky’s Dune, and tons of other genre fare—mixes a wide range of horror influences into one fun, effective cocktail. Gothic elements blend with an Evil Dead aesthetic and nods to The Shining. There are also serious Poe vibes, specifically “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Hell, the way Stevens uses mirrors and doorways and windows as frames-within-frames calls to mind Douglas Sirk at times. Maybe not horror, but still pretty alright.
While the set up may not be the most groundbreaking, the film gives it enough flourishes that it’s never an issue and never feels overly familiar. And the longer it goes on, the crazier things get. The script hints at Dan’s past troubles—with the law, with keeping it in his pants, with booze—and the house reflects and responds to his vices. His toxicity pushes him closer to the brink and deeper into darkness. The film begins more with atmosphere and a general air of spookiness, but as it goes, things progress and become downright mean, vicious, and gory. And marbles have never been this scary before.
For the most part, Girl on the Third Floor revolves around Dan alone in the house. He video chats with Liz, his wife, gets check-ins from a nosy neighbor (Karen Woditsch), has a pal (Travis Delgado) stop by to help, and then there’s frisky neighbor, Sarah (Sarah Yates). But for the most part, it’s just Dan wallowing in the escalating creepiness. It’s a lot to ask of Brooks in his first acting role—or at least his first non-wrestling acting role. He can be up and down, but overall, he does a solid job, shows potential, and the charisma and charm that made him so popular in the ring poke through now and again.
We get a third act shift that’s a bit jarring at first but that accomplishes two things. It brings Liz more into the main narrative, giving Dunn room to work, which she does well. And it lets the film get all kinds of nuts. The house is already gooey and unnerving, but it builds and builds, unleashing a climax that’s strange and nasty and should delight horror fans. There are some real, real gross special effects in play.
The whole film has a kind of rough, lo-fi punk edge to it, and a soundtrack full of the likes of Converge, Neurosis, and Big Black only drives that point home. Then there’s the score from Steve Albini (Shellac) working with Alison Chesley (AKA Helen Money) and Tim Midyett (Bottomless Pit, Silkworm). It’s a trio of well-known musicians and producers, legendary is many circles, but who have never done this kind of movie work before—Albini’s only previous credit is for the Upright Citizens Brigade series in 1998. A cool bit of trivia as well as fantastic mood enhancement.
A solid chiller, a loose, fun, gooey twist on a haunted house yarn, Girl on the Third Floor uses horror as a metaphor for toxic behaviors and relationships. It may not always fully flesh out the grand ideas, but it has loftier ambitions to go with a manor that appears to have plenty of its own bodily fluids to spray around. [Grade: B-]
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