Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our summaries of festival films, VR previews and other special releases. This review is from the SXSW Interactive Festival 2019.
It's hard to find new ways to track a home. And Girl in the Third Floor, a horror movie that premiered at the SXSW Interactive Festival in 2019, has no point in trying. It hits the classic beats of the genre, which was largely established by Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (19459003): a protagonist with a troubled past moves into a big but run-down old house with a dark secret and then finds one malicious power to dig up his personal demons.
Instead of trying to transcend narrative boundaries, Girls on the third floor uses predictability to generate suspense. It pulls the audience through every step of the inevitable fall of the protagonist, providing plenty of foreboding and fear of the ghost with simple practical effects. Marbles, slime and doorbells have never been so threatening.
What is the genre?
Focused, slowly burning ghost house story. Travis Stevens, the first author and director, is a longtime producer of genre films, including 68 Kill  Big Ass Spider and Buster's Mal Heart and he Obviously He Has the script written specifically for the house in which it was filmed – very loose, based on the recent spooky reports there.
What is it about?
A man tries to transform a house full of ghosts. The endeavor ends badly.
More specifically, Don Koch (played by former pro-wrestler Phillip "CM Punk" Brooks) is an alcoholic with a pregnant wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and a burgeoning midlife crisis. Don is unemployed and recovering from legal difficulties. While his wife supports her with her own successful business, he buys a rundown house in the suburbs and moves to repair it. But despite his efforts, the pipes mix the dirt, the walls are viscous and marbles appear to appear spontaneously around cabinets and stairs.
As if this was not a red flag enough, his new neighbors offer veiled warnings – "This house just seems to be bad news for men," notes a bartender. His meaning soon becomes clear to the public, if not Don. A mysterious, seductive young woman begins to hang in the house, and after a night stand with Don she refuses to stay away. In the meantime, his renovations have repeatedly revealed hidden spaces and columns, pointing to the past of the house.
What is it really about ?
Girl on the third floor combines the usual "haunted house renovation" trope – most recently seen in Netflix's Hill House adaptation – to the gender-specific subtext of the construction work Don tries to reclaim a lost sense of male power and usefulness to compensate for his unemployment, forcing him to refuse his wife's requests to hire helpers, in return for using his self-imposed suffering as an excuse to misbehave and to argue that he has "earned" some vices with his hard work.
This does not make Don a monster – he is a sympathetic type who seems to be real love for his wife But it is easy for the house, after to hunt down its mistakes to make it arrogant, claim, and eventually doom.
Is it good?
The girl's end on the third floor could shake some people There is an abrupt style change and an exposure that raises almost more questions than answers. But it also offers catharsis in a restrained, sometimes creeping, tense story.
Instead of being just an excuse to bring a character to a haunted place, Don's repairs actually claim large parts of the movie – if you need to fix a movie hole in Drywall, is Girl on the third floor not a bad tutorial. The basic, supernatural rottenness of the house comes to the fore in the first few minutes of the movie, long before we know what's wrong with it. It forms the basis for increasingly shrill phenomena and builds up grotesque surrealism at its peak.
Through the methodical repairs, the audience can also easily get in touch with Don, who is objectively a fool, but still compassionate. Brooks is down-to-earth and charismatic in character, and he plays Don as a credible, nice guy who is still fatefully insecure – more of a tragic figure than a crawl that gets his kindness.
Don's sympathy makes the exploration of gender through the film more nuanced than it sounds. The third-floor girl is essentially about virulent masculinity and the anger of women, two topics that have recently made pop culture rounds. But most of the time, a character's own weaknesses lead him into a trap that happens to fit into some ugly male stereotypes. And thanks to a distinctive soundtrack by Big Black founder Steve Albini, outstanding low-tech tricks and a sense of frightening fear, even if they're not surprising, the whole saga is as scary as it should be.
What should it be rated?
Girl on the third floor earns an R rating primarily for Gore – who is used relatively considerate, but strikes hard when hit.
How can I actually see it?
Girl in the Third Floor does not seem to have any fixed distribution plans, but if it's like some of the films that Stevens has produced, this could lead to a limited theatrical release in combination with a video-on-demand release – or it could always be picked up by a streaming service.