Movies

SXSW Film Review: ‘Girl on the Third Floor’

The vengeful spirits in a former bordello prey on the home’s new tenants in producer-turned-director Travis Stevens’ enjoyable horror opus.

Home improvements may be the death of you in “Girl on the Third Floor,” a likable supernatural thriller with Phil Brooks aka former WWE wrestler C.M. Punk as an expectant first-time father whose haunted fixer-upper serves up temptations he thought he’d left behind. This first directorial feature by prolific indie producer Travis Stevens tips its cap to a number of bigger, sometimes better horror opuses, resourcefully if not quite memorably reducing their tropes to a smaller scale (and budget). Yet if the story isn’t ultimately a knockout, the film’s atmospherics and sense of humor are winning nonetheless. “Girl” should do well at genre fests as well as in streaming.

Unemployed and lucky to be un-incarcerated in the wake of a deal with the Feds (we don’t find out the precise nature of his crime until late in the film), Brooks’ Don Koch is trying to bury his former bad-boy ways in the renovation of an old house in an Illinois suburb. Until her due date gets closer, wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) remains behind in the city, working a corporate job with an eye toward the family’s future.

An amiable tough guy with a weak will, Don has already bent his maritally agreed-upon “no alcohol” rule when another vice presents itself: apparent neighbor Sarah (Sarah Brooks), a sexy young thang who’s rather insistently friendly and flirtatious in her offer to be “helpful.” Pushover Don remembers he’s married only the morning after, when pal Milo (Travis Delgado) shows up for a planned weekend of scraping and painting, only to discover what looks an awful lot like infidelity-in-progress. Loyal to Liz, Milo argues with Don, who storms off for a long walk with his dog to cool off. In his absence … well, suffice it to say that the short-lifespan rule for African-American best friends in horror movies definitely holds firm, and soon does the fatality rate for family pets.

There are some explanatory flashbacks involving the building’s shady past as a bordello where dark things happened, and whose lingering spirits have a thing for stirring up the moral faults in latter-day married male residents. A local female pastor (Karen Woditsch) cryptically warns both Don and, later, Liz of that danger. But this manse eats up sinners, and Don is no saint.

Heavily tattooed Phil Brooks has the slightly cartoon leading man looks and antic comic esprit of Bruce Campbell in the “Evil Dead” movies — he’s another square-jawed wise guy who invariably ends up prey to splattery slapstick peril. It’s a fun star turn that easily carries most of the film, abetted by Stevens’ deft assembly. Courtney & Hillary Andujar’s production design, Scott Thiele’s lensing and all other major contributors ramp up the unsettled atmosphere to the max as well as milk mordant humor from the simple yet effective haunted-house premise.

What’s ultimately less impressive is Stevens’ script, which to varying degrees draws on the templates of “The Amityville Horror,” “The Shining,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and other conspicuous predecessors, but lacks the original fillip or three that might have turned an enjoyable exercise into something really first rate. Another limitation is Sarah Brooks’ villainess: She’s got plenty of naughty-cheerleader allure, but can’t quite summon the inner malevolence to comprise a truly terrifying nemesis.

Despite these shortcomings, “Girl on the Third Floor” is more than resourceful and stylish enough for horror fans to eagerly anticipate Stevens’ directorial future — the opening credits alone suggest a refined skill set that’s well above genre average. Punk rock fans will be attracted by the presence of fabled producer-musician Steve Albini among the three original-score collaborators, though his contribution isn’t obvious (apart from one track by his ’80s band Big Black).

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