BUFF21, Film, Film Review

BUFF REVIEW: Girl on the Third Floor (2019) dir. Travis Stevens

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When I was twelve years old, my best friend’s family moved into a very large, very old Victorian manor deep in the woods of Massachusetts. When you’re a preteen with a healthy taste for the paranormal, this alone would be enough to give you the willies: when we learned the house had a colorful history, both possibly apocryphal (an achingly romantic suicide, the prerequisite series of alleged hauntings) and very much documented (it had been home to, in reverse chronological order, a hippie commune, a prominent astrologist, and a German man in the 1930s who aimed to make the house a base of operations when Hitler conquered America), and it was pretty much all over. For the first couple of years, every time I stayed over, we would sleep in shifts, scanning the dark, cobwebbed corners for the poltergeist that would inevitably come to claim our souls.

All of this is to say that I was keenly tuned to the wavelength of Girl on the Third Floor, the new haunted house spookshow from producer-turned-director Travis Stevens. Stevens’ film nails the uncanny feeling of dread that can come with settling into any new home, let alone a house that’s objectively spooky on its face, let alone one that comes prepackaged with a legitimately sordid history. Yet Stevens also avoids the inherent creakiness of the haunted house movie by packing his film with ideas that stray from the genre’s playbook, and while not all of those ideas necessarily work, Third Floor is seldom boring.

The house in question is located in rural Illinois, the new home of slick ex-lawyer Don Koch (played by professional wrestler Phillip “C.M. Punk” Brooks). Don has arrived to clean up and renovate the house ahead of his very pregnant wife, Liz (Tristesse Kelly Dunn). Right off the bat, there are warning signs that not all is right in the residence: black, rotted holes mar the walls, unexplained marbles roll across the floor and down the stairs, and suspiciously… anatomical fluids pool on the floor and ooze from the faucets and sockets. Still, Don is either too dim to notice or too macho to acknowledge these red flags, hammering away at the walls, talking to his dog, and video-chatting with Liz to show her his progress (or lack thereof). Or maybe he’s just distracted by Sarah (Sarah Brooks, apparently no relation), the local temptress with an unusual interest in the house and the odd tendency to come and go as she pleases. Needless to say, things get weird(er), and as he’s pushed to the brink, Don finds his sanity slipping away, like a bro-dude Jack Torrance.

I’ll admit to not giving much of a shit about wrestling (like, at all), but I’ve always found it notable how many wrestlers have successfully transitioned to acting, from Dwayne Johnson and Dave Bautista to Captain Lou Albano (hell, even Tor Johnson). This makes a lot of sense: even fans will admit that wrestling is more entertainment than sport, and while their athletic ability is undeniable, pro wrestlers live and die by their presence and charisma. As Don Koch, Punk isn’t exactly naturalistic, but he’s incredibly watchable, with his rubber-faced haplessness and scowling, tattooed intensity making him feel like a cross between Bruce Campbell and Henry Rollins’ character from the “Liar” video.

These two comparisons speak to two different reasons why viewers might spend much of the running time waiting for Don to get the shit beat out of him. For much of the film’s first half, I was somewhat taken aback: as a protagonist, Don’s macho swagger, womanizing, and disrespect for his wife make him seem distinctly out of step with the times. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is very much deliberate. Don is an asshole, plain and simple, and Stevens uses him as a critique of toxic masculinity circa 2019 (it’s likely no coincidence that his name is Donald, and a scan of the cast of characters will reveal some very familiar surnames). There is a very clever pivot in the third act, which I won’t spoil, but I will say that it satisfactorily reframes Don’s place in the narrative.

Of course, this commentary is also present in the fact that Girl on the Third Floor is a film about a house literally haunted by jizz. Stevens (whose credits as producer include past BUFF favorites 68 Kill and Buster’s Mal Heart, as well as Jodorowsky’s Dune) delivers the standard haunted house thrills– mysterious noises, glimpses of unknown figures in the house’s many mirrors– but he mixes them with body horror elements unusual to the genre. Bleeding walls date at least as far back as Amityville, of course,but these walls also quiver, congeal, develop orifices, and, yes, ejaculate. Indeed, sex runs through pretty much all of the goings-on, from Don’s constant noxious banter and ill-advised ghost-tryst (has there ever been a healthy ghost-tryst?) to the slowly-revealed history of the house. Stevens throws a lot of ideas at the wall, and while not all of them stick (the climactic scenes in particular are maybe a bridge or two too silly), the cumulative effect is dizzying and effective.

Interestingly, in his post-screening Q&A, Stevens revealed that much of the story was not fabricated: the house is real, the recently acquired headquarters of his production company, and its backstory was only slightly embellished for the film. Inspired, Stevens and his team paused the actual renovation of the house to spin their fictionalized version. I can believe it: underneath all its commentary and excesses, that central new-old-house creepiness rings true. Stevens also mentioned that the sound mix is still in process, as the engineers keep coming across “unexplained noises.” I desperately hope that means EVP— but that might just be the spooky twelve-year-old in me.

Girl on the Third Floor
2019
dir. Travis Stevens
95 min.

Screened Thursday, 3/21 @ Brattle Theatre (East Coast Premiere!)
Part of the 21st annual Boston Underground Film Festival— keep watching this space for the Hassle’s continuing BUFF coverage!

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