Most couples look for a home with personality but in Girl on the Third Floor, Don (C.M. Punk) and Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) have just bought a fixer-upper with more personality than they can handle. It’s usually a bad sign when the pipes burst with blood, the dog starts barking at dark rooms and the shower faucet oozes cum. But Don continues to slave away, renovating the place despite these hazards, hoping to make his wife happy, make up for marital shortcomings in the past and repair their relationship’s shaky foundation.
In the vile first scene, we see bugs rotting on wooden floorboards, which Don cleans away to make way for new ground and a fresh start. It’s a renovation that symbolizes the rejuvenation of a broken marriage in a haunted house that will remind audiences of scarier haunted-house movies.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course. Home-renovation horror might as well be a sub-genre. From Charlotte Perkins’ short story The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892 to Shirley Jackson’s novella The Haunting of Hill House in 1959, the idea of digging up personal demons in a new house is as old as English-Gothic architecture. Every Halloween a similar plot creeps its way into theaters. Last October those themes could be found in The Little Stranger. This year they reside in Travis Stevens’ directorial debut.
Stevens has plenty of experience producing indie-horror films. Thanks to his financing, cult classics like We Are Still Here brought unforgettable goosebumps to the big screen. But the scariest thing about The Girl on the Third Floor is how boring it is. Three-fourths of the run time is devoted to watching construction, and the camera literally watches paint dry at one point. When Don isn’t patching holes in the walls, his work is being interrupted by nut jobs. “I’ve been here since 1984,” the local pastor tells him on the porch, “long enough to see things come and go.” She’s hinting at the past victims of this once bedeviled whorehouse.
That’s where the “girl” in the title comes in. A girl next door with a friendly smile and inviting physique, Sarah (Sarah Brooks), wants to lend more than a helping hand to Don, whose doormat personality gives her the ability to step all over him. He thinks better of the affair the next day. But that change of heart isn’t enough. Sarah, who may or may not be human and who may or may not be living in the attic decides to stick around long enough to turn the bulky Don into a shriveling wimp.
The actor playing Don is the farthest thing from a wimp, however. C.M. Punk was a WWE icon prior to filming, so casting him as an everyday guy was a precarious decision on the part of Stevens. It’s a risk that pays off, though. In later scenes, Punk emits just enough empathy for us to root for him, even though he is shown to be an alcoholic scumbag. Steven’s script, however, isn’t as risky as his casting. Ten minutes in and the laundry list of cliches start to pile up: wandering into basements, talking walls and the question of whether those walls are actually talking or someone is losing their mind- audiences have seen this all countless times before.
Still, some of the tropes benefit the atmospherics. Like the best slasher movies, cinematographer Scott Thiele finds new ways to frame the same old tricks. Stevens and Thiele have decided to shoot the action in an actual haunted house, one that frequently appears on local news stations in Illinois. If that weren’t creepy enough, the director trades his hyperbaric pace for an explosion of surrealist scares near the end of the film.
In a finale that will give horror fans all the gore they can handle, every bad thing that could and should happen to cheater Don, does: a marble pops out of an eyeball as ghosts from the old whorehouse return for an exotic party wearing masks straight out of Eyes Wide Shut. If your eyes aren’t already shut from watching an hour of inexcusably slow paced construction, then get ready for some long-awaited cinematic justice, as Don rots like the bugs in the opening scene. Sadly, it comes too late, and the renovations needed here have nothing to do with the house.