Welcome back for another random spin of the horror wheel…round and round she goes, coughing up two spooky flicks for my viewing pleasure. Well, I don’t know if pleasure is exactly the right word in this particular situation. Viewing adequacy? Something like that.
First up is the ghost story/psychological thriller The Disappointments Room. Directed by D.J. Caruso, this movie was actually finished in 2014, but shelved after its original production company went into bankruptcy. It ended up being purchased by Rogue and released in September of 2016. The film was a dismal failure, both critically and commercially, probably due in some small measure from being shuffled around on the schedule and not promoted to any great degree; I didn’t know that before watching it, so I’m slightly mystified as to why it was so reviled otherwise. No, it’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s perfectly watchable, if eminently unoriginal and forgettable.
Starring Kate Beckinsale (who I actually thought was a different actress who looked a lot like Kate Beckinsale the entire time I was watching it) and Mel Raido as the stereotypical couple who have just suffered a tragedy and decide to move out to a run-down house in the country to deal with their grief, The Disappointments Room is a pretty bog-standard haunted house story slash psychological thriller where you’re never really sure if the supernatural stuff is real or if the main character is simply losing her marbles. In general I’m a pretty big fan of that subgenre, so I’ll give quite a bit of leeway to a film that fits those parameters; even if it’s nothing I haven’t seen before, if it’s mildly creepy and atmospheric, and isn’t aggressively stupid, then chances are I’ll enjoy it just fine, though it probably won’t leave a lingering impression.
Architect Dana Barrow and her husband David leave Brooklyn after the accidental death of their baby daughter and relocate to an old mansion in North Carolina that they plan to fix up. They have a five-year-old son named Lucas who has the patented Danny-from-The-Shining hair, and also eventually sees a ghost girl in the hallway, in a scene that very much recalls a certain famed set of sisters lurking in the corridors of a certain hotel in Colorado. There’s also an apparently ghostly black dog skulking around the yard, much like in The Omen, a mysterious red ball like in The Changeling, a creepy spiral staircase like tons of other haunted house movies throughout the ages, and scores of other genre touchstones borrowed from many other, superior movies. On the plus side, there is an adorable fluffy kitty cat whose presence is not really explained, but who I gathered was a sort of protector of Lucas, but the poor little kitty gets horribly killed later in the movie. Seriously, kill all the people in movies you want, but leave the damn kitties alone!
Anyway, early in the film, Dana sees a light coming on by itself up in an attic window, and upon investigation discovers a hidden room behind a big armoire. Since she has the blueprints at hand due to her planned renovations, she realizes that the room isn’t on the plans, despite the window of the room being very obviously visible on the front of the house. Yeah. Upon entering the room, Dana begins to see visions of a little girl and a scary old man with the aforementioned black dog on a leash, and she subsequently gets locked in the room for what seems like hours, even though in reality it was only a few minutes. Her sanity seems to crumble from that point forward, she stops taking her medication, and her husband thinks she’s flipping out again.
Amid her heightening psychosis, she learns from the kooky local librarian that the hidden room is actually a “disappointments room,” a sadly real thing that some wealthy families had in their houses back in the day to stash their physically deformed or mentally challenged children away from prying eyes. Therefore it becomes clear that the former patriarch of the house, Mr. Blacker (subtle), kept his deformed daughter up there before finally snapping and battering her to death with a hammer because she was such an embarrassment to his Victorian clenched anus.
All of this back story is somehow supposed to be related to the death of Dana’s own daughter, who passed away on the same day of the year as the Blacker child (July 5th). But I think here is where the movie really failed to make much of a connection between the two situations that might have elevated the story somewhat. Dana’s baby daughter died after Dana accidentally rolled over on her while sleeping and suffocated her. So, sure, she blames herself for killing her daughter, but her daughter wasn’t a “disappointment” to her in a way which would have tied in with the past story. The best psychological and haunted house stories set up a parallel between the past and the present, having one reflecting on the other, but this didn’t really do that in any meaningful way, so it felt a bit disjointed and not particularly cohesive.
While the acting was fine and the cinematography was quite nice, I felt like the conceit of the disappointments room was a cool idea that was mostly wasted amid a largely clichéd collection of standard haunted house tropes. As I said, it’s not a terrible movie, but it brings nothing new to the table, being content to simply recycle plot devices and images from other genre films and trying to weave them together into a fairly threadbare narrative.
The second film in the lineup was much more interesting, and while I’m not sure it entirely worked a hundred percent of the time, I appreciated that it was at least trying to do something original with its story. Directed by Vincenzo Natali (best known for Cube and Splice), 2013’s Haunter is a sort of convoluted time-loop ghost story, a bit like a mash-up of Groundhog Day, The Others, and Beetlejuice.
Our main character is a teenager named Lisa (Abigail Breslin) who not only has impeccable musical taste, but also seems to be the only member of her family to realize that they are all reliving the same day in 1985 over and over again. Every morning she is awakened by her little brother calling her over a walkie-talkie, every breakfast is pancakes, every afternoon sees her practicing Peter and the Wolf on her clarinet, Dad is perpetually working on the car in the garage, Mom is always asking her to do the same load of laundry, and every dinnertime features a plate full of meatloaf, followed by sitting in front of the TV to watch Murder, She Wrote. The next day is supposed to be Lisa’s sixteenth birthday, but that day never comes.
It’s an intriguing set-up which becomes even more compelling when Lisa begins to realize what is happening. As she does, little things about the routine begin to change. She tries to leave the house on her bike, but her dad stops her because the fog is too thick. One morning her brother says something different into the walkie-talkie. On one run-through, her dad smokes a cigarette after dinner, even though he never smoked before. One time when she actually does succeed in cycling out into the fog, she keeps circling back to the house again.
Slowly, Lisa begins to figure out that her entire family is dead and trapped in some sort of limbo, so she begins to use a Ouija board to try to make contact with a living girl named Olivia (Eleanor Zichy) who occupies the house in some future timeline to try to figure out how to get out of the loop.
Along the way, a creepy dude called Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) keeps calling her on the phone or dropping by the house dressed as a phone repairman in order to warn her to stop meddling with the timelines. He shows her that he can affect her reality if she hates the one she’s in so much (for example, he makes her parents and brother turn into mummified corpses in front of her eyes in a pretty effective scene), but Lisa just can’t let it go, and continues her desperate investigation.
It turns out that Pale Man is actually the spirit of a serial killer named Edgar Mullins who once lived in the house, and that he collects other spirits the way some people collect dead butterflies (and here the opening credit sequence begins to make sense, as does the ingenious use of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “The Killing Jar” over the end credits). Over the years, Edgar has been possessing the fathers of each family that lived in the house and forcing them to slaughter their wives and children and then themselves so that all their ghosts would be forever stuck in the house’s purgatory. Lisa’s family were all locked in the garage and killed with carbon monoxide on the night before Lisa’s sixteenth birthday, hence the reason why Dad is always working on the car in every iteration of their last day.
Eventually, Lisa is able to rally her family into realizing what is happening to them and also enlists the help of the other spirits as well as still-living Olivia, who is next on Edgar’s kill list. In the end, Pale Man is defeated, and a new day dawns…Lisa and her family are still in the same house, but it is bathed in golden light, her birthday has finally arrived, and they can leave the premises whenever they like.
Haunter was actually a cool little experiment of a film, a sort of multi-layered, reverse ghost story slash murder mystery. Because of the whole “reliving the same day over and over” trope, the beginning of it got slightly repetitive, but I was so interested in where the story was going that I didn’t really mind, and I liked being able to pick up subtle little differences in the routine every time she lived through it again. The movie wasn’t all that scary, though it did have some eerie imagery, and there was no gore to speak of, so it sort of had the feel of a YA novel, not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. I found the plot slightly overly-complicated, but in the end I enjoyed this flick a lot, and I really appreciate that Vincenzo Natali did something a little different with the genre.
That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.