“This house is a bitch,” pastor Ellie Mueller (Karen Woditsch) tells Don Koch (WWE legend Phil “CM Punk” Brooks) of the Victorian mansion opposite her church that he is fixing up so that he and his pregnant wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) can start a family there. “Certain places have personalities, and sometimes they’re rotten. It takes a real strong hand to turn them around again.”
Ellie’s words are carefully chosen. In calling the house a bitch, she is personifying it – and indeed the house drips and seeps and oozes all manner of icky fluids that one might normally expect only to see issuing from a living body. When Don first enters, and the camera tracks his dog Cooper exploring these new environs, there is a strange dark hole in one of the walls, a pool of cum on the floor, and a powerpoint that secretes a similar white liquid. Even as the potential of this location to become a good family home is obvious, the production design is suitably disgusting, as the house appears to be not just that cliché beloved of critics, ‘another character in the film’, but one that literally lives and breathes.
The word ‘bitch’ is also heavily gendered, even if its use by a woman ironises it – and as Don is warned by local bar owner Geary McCabe (Marshall Bean), “That house just seems to be bad news for straight men.” Don is straight, and something of a red-blooded alpha male, insisting on clearing up the house all by himself. He also, despite playing the good husband and father-to-be, is quick to revert to old ways, falling off the wagon and giving into temptation with the flirtatious young woman (Sarah Brooks) who keeps showing up. Indeed, Don is something of a masculine monster, like a Jack Torrance of Chicago’s suburbia – and as the house reveals the secrets of its horrific history to him, hidden in basement, attic and the spaces between the walls, this would-be family man gets caught on the wrong end of a moral choice, and begins, like the house itself, to lose his marbles.
Travis Stevens has long served as a producer to quality indie horror, playing midwife to titles like A Horrible Way To Die, Cheap Thrills, Starry Eyes, We Are Still Here, Buster’s Mal Heart and 68 Kill – and all this good work has clearly rubbed off on his debut feature as writer/director. Girl On The Third Floor is both a highly accomplished haunted house story for the #metoo generation, and an examination of antediluvian male drives (for sex and power) that even the perfect domestic situation struggles to contain. The undoing of ‘King Don’ is a belated revenge of the female repressed, as well as a long history of perverted patriarchy replaying itself ad nauseam and deconstructing – with a drill hammer – the uneasy, even exploitative and violent relations between men and women.
Girl On The Third Floor was seen and reviewed at SXSW 2019.