Synopsis: When Don Koch (Phil “CM Punk” Brooks) decides to kick off a second chance for happiness with his family by renovating a house in the suburbs, he does not expect to find himself facing rotting drywall, weird clogs, slinky lingerie hidden behind wooden paneling, electric outlets that seep some kind of slime, and other goopy horrors. He is as ill prepared to face these things as he is to face flirty neighbor girls, weird sounds in the night, rolling glass balls that seem to come from nowhere, and suggestions of a haunting. Pastor Ellie Mueller (Karen Woditsch) across the street might know a thing or two about the house, but she is content to listen unless she is asked direct questions. One thing Don is not: A guy who asks for help. His wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) is pregnant with their daughter, and this home renovation is his best shot at redemption for past sins. Unfortunately, the house in the suburbs does not have the clean slate history Don is hoping for, and he will learn why the house has a reputation for . . . being unfriendly to heterosexual men. Director Travis Stevens helms a visceral, black comedy horror film, when he introduces us to the secrets of The Girl on the Third Floor (2019).
There is some untenable quality about the word “moist” that freaks some folks out. I myself seem to be immune to that word’s unnerving menace. If you, however, fall into this particular category, then The Girl on the Third Floor is bound to squick you out. The house in this haunting tale is a moist one, it seeps and it leaks and it puddles and it spurts, and it embodies just about every kind of disgusting exploration of moisture, slime, and fluids I have seen in a long time. Needless to say the set design and FX are great. This is a horror film that is unashamed to wallow in the stuff of body horror, and to some degree it draws inspiration from the two great practitioners of the genre, David Cronenberg’s earlier films, Clive Barker’s entire oeuvre, from The Books of Blood through his films and all the way to Coldheart Canyon as well as characterizations that would feel quite at home with extreme horror author Bryan Smith’s visions. However, the film does not come across as a pastiche of either of these storytellers. There are the traces of other inspirations in this feature. A little Stanley Kubrick can be found in a surprising party that turns occult sexy could have occurred in some as yet unseen corner of either The Shining (1980) or Eyes Wide Shut (1999). I am sure there are others.
The Girl on the Third Floor might be a haunted house movie, but it’s not a subtle, quiet tale of ghostly horrors ala 1963’s The Haunting or even the aforementioned The Shining. Instead, it is a meaty modern take on the genre with a few things on its mind about those who have power and those who do not. At the heart of this flick is the performance at the feature’s heart: CM Punk is a one-man show for much of the feature’s opening, playing against his dog Cooper (Ryker), the neighbor girl Sarah (Sarah Brooks), a signature seeking suit, the visiting pastor, and phone conversations with his breadwinning wife. When his pal Milo (Travis Delgado) arrives to help with the house, we have seen Don rip into walls, do his damnedest to perform a drywall patch for a house that would prefer not to be fixed, thank you, and some fun interplay between man and his best friend, a German Shepherd. CM Punk is the constant in the film’s opening, and though he is here, he is never one-hundred-percent sympathetic. However, a character does not have to be sympathetic in order to be interesting, and I applaud this film for giving us a bastard who is trying to be better and failing at the effort. Don is a flawed man, a bit of a screw up (okay, a major screw up), and a man in serious need of both redemption and a sense of worth. Alas, he picked the wrong vessel for these needs.
CM Punk himself is an uncanny mashup of Henry Rollins and Bruce Campbell. He has a likeable face, an incredible body, and a penchant for delivering authentic reaction shots to disgusting things. I found his portrayal engaging, and though I hated some of the decisions his character made and some of the stupid damned rationalizations that character subsequently expostulated, well, I found myself believing CM Punk’s performance. Here is an actor with some horror chops that I am keenly interested in seeing in more work. Lucky me, he’s in this year’s Rabid remake from the Soska sisters, which I was already keen to see before and am geeked for now.
Playing opposite him, but carrying the thread of the film itself are the women in the picture. I will call out two of them in particular, though I could easily rave about the performances from both Karen Woditsch and Elissa Dowling, as well.
Sarah Yates is the young, seductive , a girl who favors short skirts and tight tops. However, she is not mere eye candy here. Brooks brings a sinister light to her body language and face, giving us a dangerous woman who knows how to draw out certain responses and play on them. At one point, she wears a red leather skirt and loose white top that screams Fatal Attraction (1987), and this is not coincidental. However, she is not a mere femme fatale, either. This is a layered character, and though her story is not one that comes out immediately, when it is revealed it is impossible not to feel sympathy for her situation.
Trieste Kelly Dunn plays the hell out of her role as Don’s wife Liz. As with Sarah Yates, Liz starts out in one place as a character, the shrewish “paranoid” or suspicious spouse who would prefer to call in experts to do the job her hubby has set out to do. In fact, she is nothing of the sort. Instead, she is the strongest character in the piece, assured with herself and her own choices, and yet she has a weak part too: she keeps making excuses for her husband’s failures. She is actually the protagonist of this film, making active decisions while husband Don seems to be reacting.
The film has unexpected complexities to its structure. We start out in familiar territory. As with The Legend of Hell House (1973), Hellraiser (1987) or other similar scary house tales, we begin with entry into the weird domicile and then discovery of the strangeness tucked away inside. However, the film is not content to tell only that story. It actually moves out of the familiar framework, reaching what might have been a conclusion for film content to regurgitate the familiar. However, The Girl on the Third Floor is not content to stop there. It carries on, finding a new spin for its material.
One of the interesting aspects of the script (from director Stevens working with writers Trent Haaga, Paul Johnstone, and Ben Parker) as well as the execution is a fascinating use of an unreliable narrator. This is far more easily accomplished in fiction, which allows us the opportunity to get inside a character’s head through internal monologue. However, Don’s view of the people in his life creates certain expectations for the audience, and as the film progresses, we get to see how close or removed from reality that character’s views are. It’s subtle and fascinating. Bravo, filmmakers.
The comedic beats made me laugh, the mayhem (both gory bits and the moist house itself) is creative, and the movie engaged me on both a cerebral and gut-level way. It hammers all three of the buttons that grab my enthusiasm for horror film. The Girl on the Third Floor is an exceptional film, one that I recommend heartily.
Next week, we jump over to another recent horror flick, the desert island survival horror epic Sweetheart. It too is available on streaming with DVD and Blu-ray editions up for pre-order eventually (but not yet).
“Movie Mondays: The Girl on the Third Floor” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and image taken from IMDB.
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