'Girl On The Third Floor' Review: This Fixer Upper Has Ghostly Occupants [SXSW]

When grandma stitched you that decorative "Home Is Where The Heart Is" pillow, she didn't mean it literally (a physical, beating organ), but Travis Stevens' Girl On The Third Floor is architectural horror that ponders otherwise. If these walls could talk, what secrets they'd spill – or better yet, imprison. Stevens' haunting deconstruction splits no hairs between sins of the past and sins of today, as some desecrated buildings have endured too much tragedy worth keeping quiet. It's a homeowner's worst reality, temptress' playground, and spooky-scary ghost story isolated inside a barren, yet active, fixer-upper.It's not The Witch In The Window-tier "latched souls" terrorization, but Stevens' directorial debut is nonetheless a hair-raising plea for atonement once momentum snowballs.Phil "CM Punk" Brooks stars as Don Koch, a once big-shot Chicago investor who went by the nickname "King Don." Looking for a fresh start in Nowhere, America, Don purchases a worn-in Victorian estate for him and his pregnant wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn). With a laundry list of required upgrades, the one-person wrecking crew starts demolishing and rebuilding by himself, unless you count their pooch, Cooper – but is he alone? Pastor Ellie (Karen Woditsch) pops in routinely, attorneys with paperwork drop by, and girl-next-door Sarah (Sarah Brooks) becomes a frequent distraction. Don has plenty to accomplish, complicated by a thick black substance eating away interior structures, but can he ignore the unknown questions mounting each day?Stevens' cinematographer Scott Thiele plays around with Conjure-verse tricks in Girl On The Third Floor that open and endanger a relatively cozy floor plan (read: no mansion). Marbles are tossed as a recurring device that recalls Annabelle: Creation and a pop-gun projecting from the darkness. It's mere minutes into Don's arrival before Cooper alertly plops himself in front of an open closet, nothing but grim darkness to be seen. Childish giggles, background apparitions, ceiling plaster collapsing without prompt: we've come to know these haunted beats, but even so, latter-half chills run deathly cold.The fortification that houses Mr. Brooks' feature acting debut does not immediately instill horrific intrigue. While Don fraternizes with Sarah, secretly visits empty bowling alley bars, and fumbles early on with home improvement tasks (typically covered in sludge), we "eagerly" await that impending genre tipping point. A man alone, pushing forward but caught in past mistakes, wandering room-to-room as figures trail behind. Destructive images flash – mucus dripping from sockets, a blonde haired "nymph" whose mouth stretches up across her forehead like a geode – but intensity doesn't mount until the film's title becomes evident. Brooks' portrayal of Don is better at exuding blue-collar everyman frustration than business acumen sleaziness, and he's at his best when overstimulated.Expectedly, third-act Punk is a different beast from introductory FaceTime chats and "I deserve this" machismo wiring.When Girl On The Third Floor reveals its secrets, unlocks a hidden attic balcony, and exposes buried skeletons between weakened paneling, Stevens ties historical abuse into unsettling boogeymen who crawl from the house's darkest depths. The monsters were created by neglect, consequences of the flesh paid for actions of betrayal. It's as much about who's committing such acts as it is what bloody wounds are left gaping, especially once Liz reenters the picture after Don runs a gauntlet of paranoid personal fulfillment. Director Travis Stevens is at his meanest and most focused in these moments, building toward a finale that holds plenty of escape denial enthusiasm. Summer solstice aviary masks, answers nestled between drywall, rot that infests like a fungus (inside both Don and his new sanctuary)...patience will be rewarded with gross-out pigtail corruption.There have been smoother and more leveled "tortured past inhabitants won't leave" realty nightmares than Girl On The Third Floor, but this one ain't too shabby. It's always at its best when Sarah Brooks plays the sundressed seductress, or as Phil Brooks unleashes "King Don's" toxic dominant personality, with full acknowledgment of a meandering Act I that bleeds into Act II. Stevens breaks a man down, tears a house apart, and leaves us with the ultimate conclusion that forgiveness can only be granted so many times. People change, but only if they desire metamorphosis. Girl on the Third Floor is a portrait of victimization and the vengeful spirits who refuse to see others join them as more failed statistics, with erupting blood sink geysers for good measure./Film Review: 6.5 out of 10