October Horrorshow: Girl on the Third Floor

Haunted house flicks are often very formulaic. A family, or a couple, or just an individual, moves into a home they’ve purchased, and not long afterwards, strange things begin to occur. These ghostly tricks and shenanigans are harmless at first — basic funhouse trickery. As the movie goes on, the disturbances become stronger and have more effect, leading to denouement in the final act. It’s a formula that has worked for decades, from The Haunting to The Conjuring. But, the formula can get stale, especially when there are piles of bad movies that utilize it. Girl on the Third Floor, the 2019 film from screenwriter Trent Haaga and director Travis Stevens, starts out as if it will adhere to the formula, then veers into something that, while totally unique, displayed a substantial amount of originality.

Former professional wrestler CM Punk plays Don Koch, an investment banker from Chicago who is trying to fix his life after being convicted of securities fraud. He managed to avoid a jail sentence, but his ability to earn a living has been shattered. He’s also a shitty husband, as viewers will learn.

He and his wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who is now the sole breadwinner, are about to have a baby, and have decided to move to the suburbs. Because of their somewhat strained finances, they purchase a fixer-upper that was a brothel a hundred years ago, then went through many hands, and has now been empty for some time. The house needs work before full occupancy, so while Liz remains behind in Chicago, Don moves in and begins rehabbing the house.

He finds a disturbing amount of slime emanating from various spots of the house. There’s a hole in the living room wall that emits a black sludge, while electrical outlets in the house leak a semen-like fluid. That’s kind of gross, but an accurate description.

Don does his best to fix everything, but he can’t get seem to get ahead. Every time he patches a wall in one spot of the house or fixes a plumbing issue, something elsewhere goes wrong. It’s almost as if the house doesn’t want to be fixed.

Then there’s Sarah (Sarah Brooks). She’s a local who drops by the house not knowing anyone has purchased it. What she’s been getting into at the house before Don showed up is for the viewer to Girl on the Thrid Floor movie posterdiscover. Sarah is young, blonde, flirtatious well past the point of arousing suspicion, and just plain hot. Without showing any hesitation whatsoever, Don has sex with Sarah, taking care of all the character development an audience will need from Don.

As a few days go by and Don keeps working on the house, things get weirder and weirder, but not in a way that matches the typical haunted house formula mentioned above.

In most haunted house flicks, it doesn’t take more than an act or so for the characters to realize their place is haunted. The stuff that happens around Don, with the exception of all the icky fluids, appears to have human origins. The audience is let in on the spectral origins before the halfway mark, while Don isn’t clued in until well after.

Also, it has never made much sense in films like this that the ghosts have to build up to more profound disturbances. Why don’t they just bring out the big guns early? This film does much better at making sense of the events in the house. Viewers aren’t sure until the final act if it’s the house itself that is doing things to Don, or if there are ghosts about, but when answers are given, they are quite satisfying. It’s not always necessary for a horror film to answer all its questions, and I think it would be good if more films did not. But the final act and resolution of this film, which I cannot in good conscience spoil, do such a fantastic job of bringing the viewer in deeper into the story that leaving things a mystery could have been a mistake.

I was hesitant about watching this film because of its star. The most successful pro wrestler in movies is Dwayne Johnson, hands down. Out of all them, he’s also the best actor. That should give one an idea of why I had my doubts about this film. As a general rule, a wrestler (or any celebrity who has not always been a thespian, for that matter) will not be good at acting. Time and time again that has been proven, from Hulk Hogan in No Holds Barred to Steve Austin in, well, anything. Even Andre the Giant, who gave such an endearing performance in The Princess Bride, struggled mightily with his lines.

In this film, CM Punk was worthy of no awards. Some of his readings were flat, and there wasn’t a whole lot of emotional range. Compare him to someone like the late Fred Johnson, who was a lawyer and Washington insider before he turned to acting. Johnson had limited range, as well. When he was in a film or TV show, he was basically playing himself. But the quality of his reads is what sets his journeyman acting apart from CM Punk’s. That difference is significant when it comes to the quality of a performance. That said, CM Punk inhabited his character very well, to the point I think the film benefited from his performance. The audience sees Don before they see the ex-wrestler, even though the filmmakers didn’t bother covering up CM Punk’s extensive tattooing. Other actors could have played this part, but, in a roundabout way, CM Punk nailed it.

Brooks as the ingenue was also good. She wraps her character in sensual menace. Don may not pick up on her danger until his hormones settle down, but Sarah is trouble. It hovers over her.

Girl on the Third Floor plays into convention only as long as it’s necessary for misdirection. What appears to be a normal ghost film at the start turns into something else. The transition is gradual enough that the audience doesn’t know that until late in the film. Stevens and company have done something that has a high degree of difficulty in horror. They have made a new contribution.

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