Heralding the directorial debut of “Starry Eyes” and “We Are Still Here” producer Travis Stevens, “Girl On The Third Floor” is a tightly scripted, deceptively simple story of a not-so-good guy in way over his head during a hellish home renovation, and one of the best genre films of the year.
With an expertly executed blend of slow burning tension and downright disgusting practical effects delivering a hard hitting, one-two punch, Stevens also manages to get genuinely compelling performances from his leads, most notably Phil Brooks, A.K.A. former pro-wrestler C.M. Punk in his film debut, his concerned wife Liz, played by Trieste Kelly Dunn, and the overly flirty new neighbour, Sarah Brooks. In a year awash with disappointing reboots and clunky blockbusters, it’s refreshing that an original, low budget genre picture like “Girl On The Third Floor” can still deliver on skill and substance over CGI effects and spotty sequel tie-ins, using it’s spare budget to maximum effect, and it’s effects for maximum impact.
Set in an abandoned home in the Chicago suburbs, most of the film follows Don (Brooks), a disgraced lawyer who’s taken on a hail-mary home renovation project to help save his precarious marriage and his fragile manhood. As we get to know Don, and Don gets to know the house … and his far-too-friendly new neighbours, he’s quickly underwater. There’s the black, pulsing hole in the wall that won’t stop growing. And there’s that other wall that starts to bleed. And the strange sounds coming from the chimney are most certainly not a squirrel.
The house’s leaks and creaks ooze in ways that would make David Cronenberg blush, and with Steven’s keen eye for framing each shot for maximum creepiness, the sickly pastel and floral colours of the house begin to sour as Don’s stress, sleep deprivation and increasingly bad decisions mount. As his wife’s arrival approaches and the house continues to decay in a “Money Pit” meets “Videodrome” spiral of surreal viscera, Don takes matters into his own hands … and with blunt force. We don’t want to give any more away than we need to, but believe us when we say that “Girl On The Third Floor’s” simple narrative doesn’t mean it’s a simple film, everything that happens in this film happens for a reason, and that reason is always in service of Don’s downward spiral.
The “never ask for directions” type, Don is simultaneously a realistic, relatable guy, and a hugely unlikable asshole who’s brought most of his problems on himself. Played with just the right amount of Bruce Campbell-esque hamminess and a seething, early middle age anger that makes him seem like a hair-trigger threat, Brooks’ keeps us fixated on Don without delivering much in the way of dialog, instead Stevens lets his interactions with the excellent supporting cast fill in the blanks, and Brooks’ background in “playing to the back of the house” during his pro-wrestling heyday gives his mostly silent performance a wide range of expression, letting us see the gears turn behind his often cold eyes.
When the film’s action does kick in, Brooks’ physical stature and skills in stunt work are used to excellent effect. He clearly knows how to use his body to deliver, and receive, some serious punishment. Similarly, we get to know Liz, the beleaguered wife, through her interactions with Don, at first via video, then in her interactions with the neighbours, as she arrives in the films third act to inspect Don’s handiwork. Played with the right amount of exasperation and commitment, Dunn offers the sobering “Yin” to Brooks’ raging “Yang”, and allows us a unique perspective on the story as she assumes the lead for the film’s third act and we see Don’s breakdown through her eyes. Where as Don solves his problems “hands on”, Liz takes a different approach, looking deeper to solve the puzzle and survive their move from hell.
As the action moves to the titular third floor, the tension boils over and the film shifts gears into a far more physical realm, as the practical effects deliver some over the top gore with an unflinching execution. And while sex permeates the film, there’s very little in the way of nudity, giving the film a slightly less schlock feel than it could have suffered in the wrong hands, while simultaneously serving to amp up the ick-factor as a fetishistic pantomime overtakes the house.
Filmed with a steady hand and a clever eye, the film feels spare in the way a sports car does: nothing unneeded clutters “Girl On The Third Floor“, and its clever narrative twists never seem unnatural or contrived. With an obvious love of the genre, Stevens makes the transition from producer to director with a strong and self assured debut, and paired with a breakout performance from Brooks’, the pair seem poised to take up the torch for a new generation of genre auteurs and actors. Easily one of the year’s best, the slow building, supremely satisfying “Girl On The The Third Floor” can’t be missed.
Check out the trailer below, it’s streaming on demand now!