Haunted house movies come in all manner of shape, form, and style, but comedic variations aside, they have a shared goal in a desire to unsettle and hopefully scare viewers. The ghosts and the stories behind their existence often involve misdeeds of the past, but writer/director Travis Stevens‘ debut feature adds a wrinkle in the form of present day bad behaviors unintentionally reaching out to past transgressions. There are consequences to every action, and for one poor shmuck with a history of poor choices behind him those future consequences come courtesy of the Girl on the Third Floor.
Don (C.M. Punk) has relocated to the suburbs after leaving his job in disgrace — he felt it was okay to defraud investors, but they and the federal government disagreed — and he’s now cleaning and remodeling his family’s new home. Well, it’s their new home, but it’s a very old house, and its numerous messes keep him busy while he waits impatiently for his pregnant wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) to join him in a week’s time. Walls are leaking, sinks are clogged, and then there’s the matter of the weird viewing balcony over the master bedroom… it’s a house with history, and that history involves prostitution, sex slavery, abuse, and murder. The past rarely stays put, though, and soon Don discovers that a thirst for justice never runs dry.
The expected trappings are here for a tale of ghostly revenge, from the spirits and strange noises to the creepy visuals and shocking discoveries, but the lifeblood running through Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor is a message of acknowledgment and retribution. It’s a story about man’s proclivity for using, abusing, and forgetting women, and while the focus here is on one man the condemnation is aimed at all of them. From sexist assumptions to sexual assault, women have played the real-life victim role for far too long, and Don has unfortunately brought his own sins into a house whose occupants have grown tired of such bullshit. It’s time they had a voice. And a hammer. And a razor.
C.M. Punk does good work with the role as he’s an energetic and charismatic performer — who, not for nothing, resembles nothing less than the angry love child of Jon Hamm and Ted Raimi with his expressive antics here — walking a fine line with a character who earns our sympathy before threatening to lose it. Don’s past troubles aren’t always spelled out, but it’s clear he’s weak and prone to temptation as he lies to his wife about his drinking and dips quickly into porn and other women when she’s out of sight and out of mind. He also shows flashes of anger early on that suggest things far darker in his realm of possibility, and his resolve will need to be a lot stronger if he wants to find redemption.
“That house seems to be bad news for straight men,” warns a local bartender early on, and while it seems silly on its face the weight behind it is very real. Girls and women have suffered and died, but they’re not about to let death get in the way of vengeance. Stevens ramps up the house’s terrors throughout but starts small with all manner of nasty fluids pouring from every available hole. The imagery is clear, and if some of these substances resemble various bodily fluids it’s not by accident. As gross as those elements are to look at the film’s sound design forces its way into your head with every squirt, spurt, and ooze. It’s an icky descent into a man-made hell, and it’s kept dangerously engaging with seductive spirits, fantastic practical effects, and the hope that this guy, finally, will understand and acknowledge his actions before it’s too late.
The film is rough around the edges as Stevens finds his way through his directorial debut, but it’s clear he has a well-established eye for effective genre beats. His producing credits are filled with greats like Cheap Thrills (2013), Starry Eyes (2014), and We Are Still Here (2015), and it’s safe to say his heart is fully invested. His script does stumble in its third act, though, as he devotes a bit too much time making sure that viewers have caught on to his themes and story details. Pacing takes a hit as it follows each final scene with one more final scene leaving some of the film’s energy and anger free to dissipate before the end credits roll.
Girl on the Third Floor is an effectively unsettling horror film about pains caused by monsters who are far too real. The supernatural threats are definitely creepy and grotesque, but as is often the case, it’s the living who continue to do the most damage.