Haunted house stories date back to the very beginning of the horror genre and despite the couple hundred years between the original supernatural dwellings and present time, not a whole lot has changed. When looking at the gothic novels of the 1700s or Girl on the Third Floor, which just played at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, you will ultimately find the same themes and motifs occurring again and again...
...Creaking floorboards, mysterious whispers, moving pictures or doors, and unexplainable reflections in mirrors or windows all exist at the heart of any haunted house film or story and director Travis Stevens does not deviate from Haunted House 101. At least for the first part of the movie...
First, let’s look at the premise of the movie. A couple buys a house and the husband moves in ahead of time to ready the “castle” for his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Phil Brooks (or better known as the intense former WWE wrestler, CM Punk) plays Don Koch, the husband looking to re-start his life after some unfortunate events which may or may not have been his fault (hint: It was his fault). As Don and his dog move into the house, he realizes the new home is just a few steps beyond fixer upper. A gooey black substance drips within the walls and mysterious vomit-looking slime lies uninvitingly on the floor. Just a heads up, these will not be the only seeping liquids you will encounter in this film. Don attempts to clean and repair the house, but his machismo attitude makes him refuse any assistance despite his wife’s suggestions. The unnecessary (and down-right stupid) stubbornness stems from the recent change in the couple’s life. Further details reveal Don’s masculinity is hurting because he used to work as a lawyer, but now must rely on his wife’s business to pay bills.
The premise is set, but now how about the more holy aspects of the story. Most haunted house stories include some sort of spiritual advisor or location for the hero to turn to when things start getting spooky and Stevens makes sure he checks that box. Within the first 15 minutes of the film two people point out the nearby church conveniently located across the street from our haunted house. Don also meets the local pastor (Karen Woditsch), who suspiciously refuses to enter the home.
Now I hear you ask: “What about the history of the house? Does Don learn interesting details about his new home from an old man who has lived in the town forever?” The answer would be ‘yes.’ While searching for a drink and a meal, Don meets a local proprietor who uncomfortably and very rudely warns the newcomer about living in this tiny Illinois suburb and tells stories of a house of ill-repute. The old man’s apparently homophobic remark actually holds some insight, but unfortunately Don dismisses him.
Now, let’s not get too lost in our focus of the haunted house. Yes, spooky things are happening, and I can’t stress enough you should focus on the mirrors because a lot of subtle movements appear while we witness Don silently working his daily repair jobs. But in addition to the typical haunted house motifs, another major theme of the movie looks at the dangers of toxic masculinity. Don’s wandering eye does not seem to let up and he soon finds himself tempted by local girl Sarah (Sarah Brooks), which he claims he “earned”. Stevens does not make it clear if Don believes he is owed some fun because he lost his job or because he worked so hard on repairing the house that he deserves some no-strings attached sex. Either way, Don the Douchebag misleads and dishonors two women: Liz and Sarah. So now, the house must seek revenge.
With a little bit of Bruce Campbell type humor and some tension building jump scares, Stevens begins to lure the audience into haunted house complacency. Good thing Girl has a few unexpected tricks, such as a brothel story line, sentient marbles, and a weird looking mouth monster. The movie takes an intense shift in the third act with some impressive practical effects which will make you cringe as you witness some extreme levels of self-mutilation.
Does Travis Stevens pass Haunted House 101? I would say, yes. He creates a creepy house with a predictable foundation but adds enough gore and gender commentary to not bore the audience. A bit of jump scares, bit of body horror, and even a bit of humor makes the movie enjoyable.
Girl on the Third Floor haunts VOD on October 25th from Dark Sky Films.
By Amylou Ahava