Here I go, jumping right in, attempting to write an interesting article on Travis Steven’s buzzing indie haunted house film Girl on the Third Floor. Usually when I set out to write these reviews/pieces , I try to follow some kind of theme. An angle if you will; an underlying concept that connects all the various parts of the piece together. Ah but maybe I shall forgo such an endeavor at this time. There is nothing worse than trying such a thing and failing, falling flat on your ass and dropping your prized piece, smashing and destroying all those fragile connections that you had thought were so tightly screwed together (Okay there are worse things, COVID-19, Justin Bieber, Reality TV, Cockroaches on the toilet paper roll, and on and on). So for this article I won’t attempt such a thing, unlike the film that is up for review, which does try unsuccessfully to tie together a bunch of loose concepts. Film reviewer Oscar Goff of Bostonhassle.com notes that “Stevens throws a lot of ideas at the wall, and while not all of them stick, the cumulative effect is dizzying and effective”. This is so true. Many of the ideas don’t stick (hence its inability to tie together loose concepts) However, this doesn’t make it a bad film, noting Goff’s comment about the”cumulative effect” being “dizzying and effective.”
Let’s begin with what is effective about the film. And to do that, I will begin with the beginning. A very impressive beginning it is!. I’m not talking about the first few minutes either. I’m referring to the first few seconds of the film. The story had not yet begun and yet my eyes were glued to the television, taking in the opening montage of still shots that served as the background for the opening credits. Various images on parade capturing the smallest details of the interior environment of the haunted house, magnifying them so that we the viewers understand how the parts of the whole that make for bad feng shui. A dizzying wallpaper design of rose vines. A round ceiling light fixture with three protruding screws that resemble beady eyes. An aerial shot of drawer left partially open. A dead bee lying near dusty wall baseboards. Unwholesome closeups of cracks in the corners. A nail out of place. I’m betting most viewers fail to take these shots in. You shouldn’t neglect them. They foreshadow the brilliance that will shine throughout the film. They point to the film’s best friends – the camera, the cinematographer and the editor. The talented crew and their expertise with the tools of their trade keep this film afloat. Now, what about the story? Well, it’s okay. Is there any interesting symbolism in this flick? Sigh. I guess so. But this is where I get lost. This I find underwhelming.
Former professional wrestler CM Punk stars as Don Koch, a former lawyer who has a shady past. He has cheated his clients out of money. He has cheated on his wife with other women. What a low life cheat all the way around! And he’s an alcoholic. Bad, bad Don! But all that is over now. He’s trying to turn over a new leaf. He takes it upon himself to renovate their newly acquired house. His wife Liz is so proud of her hubbie. She remains in Chicago and leaves him alone in the new house in the far away suburbs to work, work, work at rebuilding their new home. They have frequent video chats, where she regularly unleashes her boundless sympathy for her overworked hubbie. Does he need any help? Does he know what he’s doing? Is he sure that he can do without a professional? It’s so much, dear Don!
Don really doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s constantly puncturing holes into the siding. He has only a few tools and he makes a lot of mistakes. It doesn’t help him any that the house itself is determined to fuck with him. Pipes ooze with muddied liquid. Blood spills out of electrical sockets. Semen sprays from the shower head. If all this isn’t bad enough, the ceiling comes crashing down, revealing a hidden attic with walls covered with a child’s drawings. Oh, and how can I forget, marbles are always materializing out of nowhere. They roll across the floor on some predetermined path. Down the stairs, around the corner, and the camera follows these marbles curiously, demonstrating another fabulous feat in the art of creepy cinematography. They always lead to something pretty darn scary – maybe it’s a misbehaving room, maybe it’s to a dead body.
A local bartender warns Don that the house he bought used to be a brothel in the olden days. A sex worker was killed there. “No straight man” has been able to survive in that house. A female pastor from the church across the street also warns Don. She is a bourbon chugging, potty-mouthed pastor – whatta woman! She tells Don to leave the house. He doesn’t listen.
Don is up to his old tricks. He is drinking. He has sexual intercourse with a young, blonde neighbor. Bad, Bad Don! This young woman, Sarah Yates, turns out to be the ghost of the sex worker who died here years ago. She was testing Don. He failed and now she is out to get him! She haunts him. She does some very mean and deadly things.
Eventually Liz will show up. By the time she does Don is already possessed by the house. She will witness a ghostly recreation of a sex act that took place in the house years ago before the eyes of ogling perverts. She will triumph over the hostile supernatural forces. She will bond with the Protestant female pastor. Yay and stuff!
So what the heck is going on here, besides the typical supernatural shenanigans a haunted house loves to dish out?
Perhaps my “theme of the themeless” description is inaccurate in that, there is an underlying theme, but it is so painfully obvious that a viewer like myself is left thinking “but there must be something more to this!” That theme = male douchebags that mistreat women are bad and will suffer. Women will have their revenge. You go girl! This is the simple theme as per a consensus of many reviewers. Still, there are so many things begging for more explanation. The house appears to be alive, and this is one of my favorite themes in haunted house fiction. It screams or whines at times when Don is whacking away at the walls. Sometimes it even giggles. Eventually, Don will find a giant beating heart in the wall, or is it a bulging blood vessel? Whichever, but how does all this tie in with the gender dynamics and toxic masculinity theme in the film? Perhaps there is another way of examining the theme of the house as a living entity that will answer this question.
When preparing for this article, I found bits and pieces of an interesting theory put forth by some reviewer, and for the life of me, I can’t relocate that review. In my initial sighting I came across only a couple of sentences so I did not have much to go on in my vain attempt to search for it again. I wish I could provide proper sources but I can’t. Anyway the theory stated that the house was Don. He was, in fact, renovating himself. Rebuilding his life. Or at least making a half-ass attempt to do so. Flushing out the toxicity within himself. Putting up solid walls that are barriers to temptation. But there are so many toxins that he can’t handle it. To improve yourself, you have to face all the putrid things that make you a rotten person. All that blood, shit and semen (symbolic of his uncontrollable sexual urges).Don can’t handle it. So the house is symbolic of his own body. When he digs into too deeply, it cries and gets upset.
So all that is going on while at the same time, the house is its own independent identity, with its own history of mistreating women.
Now does all this make sense? Somewhat. To tell you the truth I would care more about all this retribution stuff if Liz was more of a central character. For two thirds of the film, we see here only on Facetime, and she is portrayed, IMHO, as a doting wife, boring as hell, vanilla all the way, perfectly made and bred for the suburbs. Suddenly at the film’s end, viewers see her outside of screen on Don’s phone. She is strong, she is a survivor, she is a victor! And I can care less about her so she is no heroine of mine.
Furthermore, there are other things going on in this film that cry out for explanation. In addition to the ghost of Sarah, there is this deformed Nymph that appears now and then. Who is she? And what about those marbles? When Liz is exposed to the a Shining-style recreation of the sex act, she also notes a little girl up in the attic that controls the flow of the marbles. Who the hell is she? Is she the feminine spirit of this living house? Oh I don’t know. I guess it’s just an idea that may or may not stick, right Oscar Goff?
Overall, it’s a suspenseful film with brilliant camera work. Mood and style triumph, and that’s good. Better than jump scares and high octane sound effects. As far as the story and the messaging, well, there is much left to be desired there. But I recommend this film solely on the overall flair.
Other Things to Note
Ya know where I first heard of this film? Well let me first ask this, which TV show often exposes me to classic haunted house films? If you said “Svengoolie”, you’d be right. However, The Girl on the Third Floor has many, many years to go before it can be labeled a classic. Svengoolie did not show this film. I saw this film on Netflix. But CM Punk made an appearance on the show. See, Sven likes wrestling, so he brought on Mr. Punk , and Mr. Punk then told us viewers about this film.
Isn’t this interesting?
We are Still Here
Did you know that the director of this film, one Travis Stevens, was the key producer dude for the film We Are Still Here? This is a 2015 indie haunted house film and I reviewed it. You can read it here. I thought the film was so-so, and I ended up giving director Ted Geoghegan some advice. What kind of dilettante was I, since I know nothing about the ins and outs of film-making. Oh well, I forgive myself.
Girl on the Third Floor is Stevens directorial debut. Despite some criticism I say to Travis “good job”
A Real Haunted House
The unrenovated house in the film is really haunted. Supposedly. According to CheatSheet.com this house in Frankfort Illinois is the home of spirits of two young girls. One is the ghost of Sadie, a 12 – year – old girl who worked as a maid in this house. She was murdered in 1901. The other is the spirit of Sarah, who died of an illness in the house back in 1909. Disturbances such as disembodied footsteps and phantom handprints have been reported there.