Girl on the Third Floor (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Here is a haunted house movie that brings nothing new to table, but it does a decent enough job to warrant a mild recommendation. The first half of the picture is quite intriguing because the material appears to be interested in exploring and commenting on what it be means to be traditionally masculine in our modern times. It goes out of its way to establish atmosphere, introduce history, and has the required patience in order to achieve some effective jolts (and winces due to gross-out moments involving eye-catching practical special effects). And yet I found myself detached from it; I felt like I had seen it all before.
We observe Don, a soon-to-be father with a criminal past, renovating the suburban house that he and his pregnant wife just purchased. The camera makes the point of observing the subject’s body: how he is built, the details of his tattoos, how he carries himself with confidence and toughness. He looks like a man one wouldn’t want to mess with in a bar. Don is played by professional wrestler and mixed martial artist CM Punk (born Phillip Jack Brooks), and he does a solid job in ensuring that we do not grow bored of his physicality—a necessary element because it is not enough for the screenplay to simply say Don was a crook who got away with his crimes. We must experience that charm and magnetism firsthand because these might explain why he got away with what he did. Brooks fits the role like a glove.
Everyone in the neighborhood is aware that the house used to be a whorehouse. And so when Don interacts with neighbors, they exude a certain knowing. This bit is curious, but it is a shame that the writing avoids delving into the house’s sordid history. We are shown an extended look into the past toward the end that brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s very own haunted house picture “The Shining,” but we are never drenched with rich details. Shocks, you see, are expected and common in this sub-genre. But what makes movies standout within this category is specificity, the lore, the world-building. It is a mistake to rely on the usual tropes of eerie figures appearing on mirrors, dogs staring into the darkness, and bizarre noises coming from the other room. While these are expected in a story like this, they do not elevate the material to the next level. In other words, what makes this story, this movie, special?
Taking a look at these elements, they are executed with some energy. There are instances when I thought, “Wow, that’s a well-trained dog. It even has the right expressions for this scene.” Less effective are moments in which ghosts or apparitions are invisible to the naked eye but can be glanced on mirrors. I wondered if people these days still find this trope to be scary. Here, the approach is utilized at least three times. It was already boring in the first attempt. The sound effects, on the other hand, are superior. Marbles hitting the floor and rolling about is never good news. Also enjoyable are the subtle sounds employed, for example, when strange viscous liquids come out of electrical sockets and such. It could have been silent entirely. But adding sound is smart because it creates an impression that the house is alive, breathing, in pain.
It is apparent that “Girl on the Third Floor,” written and directed by Travis Stevens, is given a lot of thought on how to creep out or scare the audience. I think it can be enjoyed by those who go into it with an open mind. Having said that, however, those who are well-versed in the genre are likely able to recognize not necessarily its shortcomings but its potential to become an even more potent experience. Thus, I can’t help but to feel excited for the writer-director’s next project. As far as directorial debut goes, it’s not bad at all.