Any haunted house movie worth its salt is about more than just ghosts. It’s what the restless spirits represent, and what they reveal about the living people who encounter them, that really matters. Girl on the Third Floor delivers just that. The haunted house film had its East Coast Premiere at Boston Underground Film Fest on Thursday.
Girl on the Third Floor marks the directorial debut of Travis Stevens, who also wrote the film. He’s previously produced genre films like Mohawk (2017) and We Are Still Here (2015). With his first foray into directing, Stevens demonstrates a talent for smart, aesthetically unique, and deeply frightening filmmaking.
Girl on the Third Floor follows Don Koch (WWE legend Phil “CM Punk” Brooks), a former bad boy businessman who plans to move from Chicago to the suburbs to start a new life with his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn). The couple has purchased a Victorian fixer-upper, and Don moves in ahead of Liz to attempt to renovate the home himself. It turns out to be quite the undertaking. The pipes burst, walls are rotting, goopy fluids leak from electrical fixtures and plumbing, and the house is filled with miscellaneous junk. Not to mention the mysterious marbles that keep dropping from upstairs and rolling across the floor. Don stubbornly insists that he can handle every challenge of the house himself. But as he tears through the walls, he begins to fall back into old vices and malevolent temptations. All the while the ghosts of the building’s past slowly make their purpose known.
Girl on the Third Floor succeeds as a straightforward haunted house film, but its unique cinematic eye and deep, ambiguous themes are what set it apart from the rest. The cast of the film fulfills their roles perfectly, but the house is the real star of the show. And what a house it is! Girl on the Third Floor was shot in a real Victorian house with a tragic history and reported hauntings. Stevens based much of the story and its themes on the deaths that actually occurred in the building, and it’s as if the spirits of the location honored the film with their invisible presence. Every shot feels as if it’s being watched with unseen eyes. Each corner seems to breathe with presence. This is one of the most alive locations I have ever experienced in a haunted house film. In fact, according to Stevens, the house had so much character it affected the sound recording. Sound mixers kept discovering unexplainable noises on the track, many of which couldn’t be fully removed within the editing timeframe. If anything, it adds authenticity to the film’s truly superb, unnerving sound design.
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Girl on the Third Floor is an excellent slow burn, with lingering cinematography and enough blink and you’ll miss it apparitions to have you frantically scanning the corners of every shot. The production design is fantastic. The unique Victorian architecture, wallpaper, hardware, and fixtures all have a character that transforms bodily fluids and ectoplasmic goo into oddly beautiful still lifes. The house features more antique mirrors than a funhouse, and they are used to brilliant effect. Shots are built entirely around filming the reflections of rooms, and they make you want to nervously glance over your shoulder. Watching the mirrors pays off just often enough to turn the viewer’s paranoia way up.
The subdued scares work so well that Girl on the Third Floor would be perfectly at home as a slow burn horror throughout. But it very much gets moving, and when it does, it’s truly shocking. The film delivers gore so twisted and original, it had a theater full of hardcore horror fans squirming and cheering in delight. The final act of the film becomes a full-on nightmare with serious thematic depth. Stevens subverts the viewer’s expectations in some big ways, revealing a smart and surreal core to his ghost story.
If I found anything less than satisfactory about Girl on the Third Floor, it’s that the conclusion left me with far more questions than answers. The motivations of the characters became somewhat murky as they fell victim to the larger themes of the story. And while the entities in the house are revealed to have a moral motivation, many of their actions seem to conflict with that. However, ghosts aren’t supposed to behave logically. And nothing de-fangs a supernatural horror film like a full explanation for all the mysteries at hand. I’d much rather have questions than see the scares doused with a cold bucket of exposition.
“Girl on the Third Floor is a marvelous little ghost story.”
The cast does a great job in their somewhat archetypal roles. They exist to support larger themes more than anything, but they handle their jobs well and it works. Phil Brooks is perfectly cast for reasons I won’t delve too much into. The puzzle of this film is best left as unspoiled as possible.
Girl on the Third Floor is a marvelous little ghost story. It manages to be unique in an oversaturated sub-genre. The dread and atmosphere alone make the film worth seeing, and there are serious scares, uniquely handled gore and smart surprises to boot. All together, Girl on the Third Floor announces Travis Stevens as a new horror director with a unique vision worth paying attention to.
Girl on the Third Floor celebrated its East Coast Premiere at the Boston Underground Film Festival.