Girl on the Third Floor is a skin-crawling horror movie about home improvement

By Adi Robertson

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. This review comes from the 2019 SXSW Interactive Festival.

It’s hard finding new ways to haunt a house. And Girl on the Third Floor, a horror film that premiered at 2019’s SXSW Interactive Festival, doesn’t make a point of trying. It hits the classic beats of the genre, largely established by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: a protagonist with a troubled past moves into a grand but dilapidated old home with a dark secret, then finds a malevolent force dredging up his personal demons.

Instead of trying to push narrative limits, Girl on the Third Floor uses predictability to generate suspense. It draws the audience through each step of the protagonist’s inevitable downfall, delivering copious foreshadowing and jump scares with simple practical effects. Marbles, mucus, and doorbells have never been so ominous.

What’s the genre?

Focused, slow-burn haunted-house story. First-time writer and director Travis Stevens is a longtime producer of genre films, including 68 Kill, Big Ass Spider!, and Buster’s Mal Heart, and he apparently wrote the script specifically for the house where it’s filmed — very loosely based on actual reports of hauntings there.

What’s it about?

A man tries to remodel a house full of ghosts. The endeavor ends poorly.

More specifically, Don Koch (played by former pro wrestler Phillip “CM Punk” Brooks) is a recovering alcoholic with a pregnant wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and a burgeoning mid-life crisis. Don is jobless and recovering from legal trouble, and while his wife supports them with her own successful business, he buys a run-down house in the suburbs and moves in to repair it. But despite his best efforts, the pipes spout tarry filth, the walls secrete viscous goo, and marbles seemingly appear spontaneously around closets and stairs.

As if this weren’t enough of a red flag, his new neighbors offer veiled warnings — “that house just seems to be bad news to straight men,” remarks a local bartender. His meaning soon becomes clear to the audience, if not to Don. A mysterious, seductive young woman starts hanging around the house, and after a one-night stand with Don, she refuses to stay away. Meanwhile, his renovations keep revealing hidden rooms and crevices, hinting at the house’s past.

What’s it really about?

Girl on the Third Floor ties the common “haunted-house renovation” trope — seen most recently in Netflix’s Hill House adaptation — to the gendered subtext of construction work. The film makes clear that Don is trying to reclaim a lost sense of masculine power and usefulness to offset his unemployment, which pushes him to refuse his wife’s pleas to hire help. In turn, he uses his self-imposed suffering as an excuse to behave badly, reasoning that he’s “earned” some vices with his hard work.

This doesn’t make Don a monster — he’s an affable guy who seems to genuinely love his wife. But it’s easy for the house to prey on his flaws, driving him toward arrogance, entitlement, and eventually doom.

Is it good?

Girl on the Third Floor’s ending might jar some people, since there’s an abrupt stylistic shift and some exposition that almost raises more questions than it answers. But it also offers catharsis in a restrained, sometimes skin-crawlingly tense story.

Rather than just being an excuse to get a character into a haunted location, Don’s repairs actually occupy large parts of the movie — if you need to fix a hole in drywall, Girl on the Third Floor isn’t a bad tutorial. The house’s fundamental, supernatural rottenness comes across from the first minutes of the film, long before we know what’s wrong with it. It lays a foundation for progressively weirder phenomena, building to grotesque surrealism at the climax.

Watching the methodical repairs also gives the audience a simple way to connect with Don, who’s objectively a scumbag, but still a sympathetic one. Brooks is down-to-earth and charismatic in the role, and he plays Don as a believably nice tough guy who’s still fatally insecure — more a tragic figure than a creep getting his comeuppance.

Don’s likability makes the film’s exploration of gender more nuanced than it might sound. Girl on the Third Floor is essentially about toxic masculinity and women’s rage, two topics that have recently made the pop-cultural rounds. But it’s mostly about a character falling into a trap because of his own weaknesses, which happen to fit some ugly masculine stereotypes. And thanks to a distinctive soundtrack from Big Black founder Steve Albini, some excellent low-tech visual tricks, and a knack for scares that are startling even when they’re not surprising, the whole saga is exactly as creepy as it ought to be.

What should it be rated?

Girl on the Third Floor deserves an R rating primarily for gore — which gets deployed relatively judiciously, but hits hard when it does hit.

How can I actually watch it?

Girl on the Third Floor doesn’t appear to have firm distribution plans, but if it’s like some of the films Stevens has produced, it could get a limited theatrical launch combined with a video-on-demand release — or it could always get picked up by a streaming service.