Festivals

Girl on the Third Floor

{BHFF Review} This House is a Bitch: The Girl on the Third Floor (2019)

“Certain places haver personalities, and sometimes they’re rotten.”

The Girl on the Third Floor could just as easily have been called “The Ghosts of Toxic Masculinity Past & Present,” though it’s also a movie that seems uncertain whether it’s equally afraid of female sexuality, or whether that’s just because we see most of it through the POV of our entitled male lead.

I hadn’t so much as heard of the film, which marks the directorial debut of producer Travis Stevens, before seeing a trailer for it in front of my screening of The Tingler at the Screenland Tapcade. The trailer looked intense, and it made me excited for the flick itself, so when Tyler said that we had access to a screener, I jumped on it.

Photo Courtesy of Queensbury Pictures

The Girl on the Third Floor establishes its strengths early on, as credits in an old-timey font play over atmospheric macro shots of a decayed but once grand house, accompanied by a score that sounds eerily like an orchestra tuning up.

The production design of Girl is one of its strongest suits. Throughout the house are touches of decor—variously subtle and not-so-subtle—that resemble female anatomy or depict satyrs (or possibly just men, hard to say) in pursuit of naked maidens, a fact that becomes less unusual once we learn that the house used to be a brothel.

Helping along the eerie production and nicely-composed cinematography is a haunting score that is probably the film’s other best feature—an unsettling soundscape that never really coalesces into actual music until the appropriately circus-like theme that plays during the party at the film’s climax.

Unfortunately, those first few minutes also showcase the film’s greatest weakness, as we see a shot of a ball rolling down the stairs a la the famous scene in The Changeling. The filmmakers obviously realize that this is creepy, but don’t seem to understand entirely why it works so well in the original movie.

Photo Courtesy of Queensbury Pictures

The same goes for Girl on the Third Floor, an effective slow burn flick that doesn’t seem to entirely understand why it is effective, and so squanders some of its power on clichés. When it’s working, though, it works like gangbusters—that’s just not as much of the time as it needs to be.

Most of the film belongs to former wrestler-cum-MMA fighter Phil Brooks, perhaps better known as C.M. Punk, who gives a strong performance as the kind of thankless douchebag who is put into these movies to fuck up and die horribly.

As the film slowly reveals, he was a money man who was handed a “sweetheart deal” by the “Feds” after defrauding his clients of their retirement savings, and now he’s planning to kick off a new life in suburbia, where you only go “to start a family or because everybody thinks you’re an asshole.”

Brooks’ Don Koch is a bit of both; he has a pregnant wife back home in Chicago, who he FaceTimes with while he’s attempting to refurbish the decaying mansion in the suburbs. Naturally, he soon encounters a seductive local and sleeps with her the first chance he gets. Things begin to go badly for him from there.

Photo Courtesy of Queensbury Pictures

 For the film’s first half, Brooks plays Koch as low-key toxic masculinity personified. He checks out women while he’s jogging, gaslights his wife and drinks behind her back, and refuses to ask for (or accept) help on the house—except from an old work friend and drinking buddy—even though he is clearly in way over his head.

In perhaps the film’s most telling character moment, Koch encounters his dog after sleeping with the strange local. The dog seems to be silently judging him, to which Koch says, “Don’t look at me like that. I earned that.”

As all of this is going on, the house is decaying in strangely organic ways. The walls in this particular haunted house don’t bleed; they ooze, they ejaculate. There are so many viscous fluids in this flick that you’ll think you’re watching a David Cronenberg joint.

The house’s orifice-like electrical outlets constantly drip a thick seminal fluid; the showerhead performs bukkake on our protagonist; those same orifices squeeze out marbles that roll along the floor. When the haunting starts in earnest, Koch smashes open a wall to reveal pulsating meat where the insulation should be.

However, it’s not the house that gets Koch, not really; it’s his own venality—not necessarily toward money, though his backstory certainly implies that, but toward everything he thinks he has earned: sex with the hot stranger, his wife not knowing about it, the life he’s building, bringing the house to heel with his “strong hand.” You name it. (His friend Milo, on the other hand? That may be the house.)

Photo Courtesy of Queensbury Pictures

This car crash of haunted house and body horror tropes are the film at its best, and if they’d had a stronger plot to hang themselves on, we would probably be looking at a new classic. Unfortunately, they don’t.

While I was watching The Girl on the Third Floor, I found myself hoping that it would be an experience akin to watching the trailer: a slow burn of familiar beats that builds to something much wilder. That never quite happens, though.

It’s a slow burn, to be sure, but most of the wildest stuff in the movie is present in the trailer, and when we finally get to the reveal of just what happened in this house, it’s the first thing you’d expect, and surprisingly tame for such a gooey flick.

By the time our titular Girl is giving her exposition, we’re making our way through a fairly pat ending toward a predictable stinger, complete with obligatory “the end… or is it?” final shot.

Like that Changeling sequence at the beginning, none of it is particularly bad—or even badly done—it’s just familiar, and not deployed in a way that really heightens the film’s other, very real strengths. As it is, The Girl on the Third Floor is a pretty good movie, but between its deft design and soundscape and the house’s oozing, gooey sexuality, it could have been a great one, had the reveals lived up to the promise of the rest of the film.

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