Travis Stevens’ funny & creepy haunted house movie pits toxic masculinity against vengeful female ghosts.
Owning a home is the dream, isn’t it? Even as it seems an ever more distant possibility in this economy, no matter where you live, it’s still the expected goal for most people, an inarguable sign that you’ve made it, that you’ve made all the “right” decisions and spent your money on the “right” things, and now your reward is thirty years of mortgage payments and being responsible for replacing the roof if it collapses. You may not even really want it, but it’s yours now, and your responsibility.
Travis Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor opens with Don Koch (Phil Brooks, better known as professional wrestler and comic book author CM Punk) moving into the new house he’s bought with his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn), in a remote Chicago suburb. Don has set up camp ahead of Liz, determined to renovate the house almost entirely on his own, a task that’s so obviously above his skill level he should turn in his Home Depot membership card.
Don, a disgraced investment banker who narrowly avoided jail time, has a lot to prove, both to himself and to Liz, who’s been a bottomless well of forgiveness for his various sins, including drinking too much and cheating on her. Their interactions with each other, almost entirely over FaceTime, are fraught with passive-aggression and suspicion, and it’s clear that neither of them are too enthusiastic about putting all their money (well, mostly Liz’s money) and time into a decaying old house out in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, like having a baby, they need to do it to maintain the image of a stable, happy marriage.
In addition to faulty wiring and random holes in the walls that lead to other, secret rooms, the most pressing issue Don must contend with in making his house a home is what appears to be various kinds of bodily fluids running out of electrical outlets, pipes, and the shower head. He also learns, thanks to the town pastor and bartender, that the house has an…interesting history to it, and that straight men who move into it don’t tend to stick around for very long. Don doesn’t spend too much time thinking about this, though, because in addition to the repairs, and trying to hide how much work really needs to be done on the house from Liz, he also enjoys a fling with Sarah (Sarah Brooks), a mysterious blonde who shows up in his backyard one day and invites herself both into his house, and into his bed.
Brooks, making his acting debut, comes off as a combination of Bruce Campbell and Christopher Meloni, and brings a surprising amount of energy and depth to a deeply flawed protagonist.
Don, who’s clearly used to having the upper hand in most situations, thinks this is a one-time thing, but Sarah keeps returning. Every encounter becomes increasingly hostile, as Don struggles to control his anger, and Sarah just wanders around the house as she pleases. You know, almost like she lives there.
While still relying on some of the tried and true “white people in a haunted house” tropes (must they investigate all the weird noises??), Girl on the Third Floor is a fresh and fun addition to the genre. Unlike a lot of similar movies that try to go for largely PG-rated scares, it’s not afraid to get gory, relying on some impressive practical effects. The backstory behind the house and the ghosts who haunt it is refreshingly clever too, and reportedly based on the actual history of a house writer-director Stevens owns — the very same house where the movie takes place.
Brooks, making his acting debut, comes off as a combination of Bruce Campbell and Christopher Meloni, and brings a surprising amount of energy and depth to a deeply flawed protagonist. You can see fury and resentment simmering under the surface, just barely hidden by forced good humor and an extremely manly insistence that he’s fine and doesn’t need any help with the house, thank you very much.
The glee Don initially takes in clumsily hammering away and tearing at the good old bones of the house is unnerving, as if suggesting that he feels emasculated in every other part of his life, but at least he can be a real man here. Before going to more malevolent levels, the house gets its revenge by humiliating him, including, in one scene, blasting him in the face with a load of sticky white fluid. You almost expect a ghostly voice to cry out “How do you like it?”
Girl on the Third Floor maintains tension from the minute Don enters the house (a seemingly meaningful closeup of a nail sticking out of the floor had me on high alert during the entire movie), and never really lets up, even for the sake of a few funny moments. It takes its time in revealing what kind of person Don really is, and why he may be ill-suited to confront the dark secrets and furious souls who live in the house. If most haunted house movies suffer from cardboard cut-out characters, here it’s who they are that’s particularly important, perhaps even a matter of life and death. The house doesn’t ruin everyone, just weak, spineless men who always think they know exactly what they’re doing.
Girl on the Third Floor moves in for limited release in theaters on October 25th