New Horror Releases: The Girl on the Third Floor (2019) - Reviewed

Dating all the way back to Tor Johnson in Plan 9 From Outer Space, wrestlers-turned-actors have been a constant in Hollywood. Some have fared better than others, for every Dave Bautista, there’s a Paul Levesque (Triple H), but the the line from wrestling to acting is a short one. It’s easy to see why: wrestling above all else, is a performance. The most successful wrestlers have been able to incorporate believable acting chops into their athleticism and in turn, become mega-stars. The latest former wrestler to make this jump is Phil Brooks, better known as CM Punk.

Punk, at one time, was the biggest wrestling star on the planet. He used his gift for speaking and ushered in a level of reality into wrestling that had been sorely missing at the time. For about five years, Punk was on top of the wrestling world, a massive favorite who blurred the lines of what was a work (“fake”) and a shoot (“real”). So when he stepped away, somewhat contentiously, fans all over the world wondered where he’d take his talents next. A stint in UFC came first and a few acting jobs here and there (most notably in Maron) but now, Punk top lines his very first film, The Girl on the Third Floor.

Directed by Travis Stevens (making his debut as a director) The Girl on the Third Floor follows Don (Punk) as he renovates his newly purchased home in the suburbs outside of Chicago. His pregnant wife is still in the city, waiting for Don to fix up the house before she moves in. The house, however, has other plans and soon enough, Don becomes entangled in a nightmare.

Preferring to leave things a bit muddy, the film doesn’t reveal exactly why Don and his wife have fled the city. As the backstory slowly unfurls, we realize Don isn’t the greatest guy in the world and committed some sort of crime while working at the “firm.” There’s a healthy dose of exposition but it’s sprinkled in so naturally that it never feels like the film is stopping dead to reveal more about Don. The only thing you really need to know about Don is that, for lack of a better term, he’s a hard drinking, misogynistic dick.

Punk played the heel in wrestling more often than not so he has some experience being someone with questionable morals. He’s able to graft all of that onto Don. Behind every smile Don gives to his wife over FaceTime, there’s a seedy distance behind it. He’s straining to put the right foot forward. He clearly wants to move on from his awful past but his basic instincts often prevail. This is made all the more complicated by the appearance of a woman (Sarah Brooks) in skimpy clothes at his side door. Don is often tested and fails but what’s remarkable is that it’s hard to hate him. Whether he’s hiding beer away from the phone’s screen or cheating on his wife, Punk’s natural charisma always comes through. That’s not to say you support him or even like him. It’s just very hard to hate him and a lot of that comes down to a great performance.

What’s equally interesting is how the script handles Don and how the camera lingers on him. So many horror movie protagonists are young women, barely dressed, running through the house screaming. Here we have Punk, often shirtless or in his underwear, running through the haunted house in terror. He screams, he shrieks, he jumps and in doing so completely reframes the “Final Girl” trope. Here, the Final Girl is Punk. Seeing a former ass kicker reduced to a screaming, crying mess is an absolute blast and Punk sells the hell out of it. As he descends into madness, all of Don’s bravado and swagger washes away and we’re left with a sobbing boy who couldn’t be strong enough for his wife. The house recognizes this immediately and exploits it.

But Punk isn’t all that’s great about The Girl on the Third Floor. Stevens’ direction is excellent, wonderfully working in tandem with Scott Thiele’s cinematography. The way Stevens frames his actors, particularly Don, is so clever. We often see Don in mirrors or through doorways, at low angles. It’s as if we’re watching from the perspective of the house. Don is the protagonist, yes, but he’s wholly unsympathetic. He’s a sexist pig who gaslights women through charm. It isn’t rewarding to view the film through his lens and instead we’re offered a more peripheral POV. Even when Sarah shows up at his side door, the camera is more interested in Don’s body. The house is preying on him, not Sarah. It’s a stunning contrast to who and what horror films usually sexualize.

The house itself is gorgeously surreal. Pastel pink walls, gaudy wallpaper, creepy mirrors with odd carvings on the frames, it’s reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel- which is fitting because Don’s descent is very similar to that of Jack Torrance. Nothing about the decorations in the house feels threatening at first glance but it’s in the mundanity of it all that the creeping dread is allowed to fester. Stevens couples this with some terrifically gross effects. Pipes burst into Don’s face, covering him with a festering black liquid. Disgusting clear-ish white slime seeps from every open orifice in the house (you can decide for yourself what that is). And on top of that, there’s some fantastic body horror that to describe would be to spoil the fun. The only hint I’ll give you is that you might not be able to look at marbles the same way again. Stevens mixes the sickly with the sweet to tremendous effect. No other horror film, or any film for that matter, can boast a house that looks like your grandmother’s except for the small problem that it might be secreting semen or blood or both.

The building of dread here is fantastic as well. Stevens twists the knife, escalating the horror with each scene until it builds to one of the most wonderfully bonkers crescendos you’ll see this year. The final act takes everything the film has thrown at you, puts it in a stew and then splatters it on the wall. The rage of women who have been used, abused and discarded by awful men like Don is, quite literally, made flesh and few films will leave you this satisfied.

The Girl on the Third Floor is a terrific directorial debut for Travis Stevens and starring effort for CM Punk. There are hiccups to be sure, every indie horror has them, but that so much of this works and works well is a small miracle. Haunted house flicks are always going to be ever present and it’s on the people making them to either do something new and fun with them or just competently travel well worn territory. This film succeeds at both and instantly becomes an exciting new entry. Bye playing with classic horror tropes in ways that feel urgent and relevant, it stands out as a must watch for this spooky season and every one after that.

--Brandon Streussnig