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Phil Brooks as Don Koch in 'Girl on the Third Floor' 

Girl on the Third Floor delivers a gender-bent haunted house scenario

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Mar 17, 2019

The Boy. The House of the Devil. Halloween. Across horror subgenres, each of these scary movies boils down to a simple story: a woman home alone and tormented by an evil presence. Sometimes she's not alone, but if there's a man around, his role is either to be ineffectual in rescuing her, which shows how dire the situation is (see: Poltergeist, The Ring, The Others, Paranormal Activity), or he's a family man who is part victim/part threat, as he might be possessed (see: The Amityville Horror or The Shining). Typically, it's the role of women in horror to be stalked and scared, whether it's on the streets, in the woods, or all over a big, creepy house. But Girl on the Third Floor turns the tables on this trope by centering its malevolent haunting on a lone man, who is spied on, stalked, and tormented by a sinister spirit. Through this, this spooky thriller scares up a strikingly feminist message.

WWE wrestler C.M. Punk (aka Phil Brooks) stars as Don Koch, a family man who plans to move his pregnant wife into a big, beautiful house before their first child is born. On a quiet small-town street, he's got the place, a sprawling three-story affair with bright pink walls, garish floral wallpaper, and a bizarre internal balcony that overlooks the master bedroom. Now he just has to do all the plastering, painting, and heavy lifting to make this run-down house a home. His wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) remains behind in their big-city apartment, using FaceTime to check up on his progress, but otherwise he has the place to himself. Or at least that's what he thinks. Almost immediately, strange things begin to happen. Black muck bleeds through the pretty paint jobs. A thick, white goo oozes out of electrical outlets. Phantom footsteps race through the walls, and a creepy giggle bursts forth from shadows. But Don soon finds himself distracted by a more pleasing presence, Sarah (Sarah Brooks), a busty blonde who shows up on his doorstep, thirsting for a bit of fun.

Sarah has a mischievous smile, legs for days, and a predilection for transparent clothing. In short, she's a stunner. And it takes no time at all before the pair fall in bed together. But Don is shocked and affronted when she turns up again. He scolds Sarah, telling her it was a one-night stand, and sure, he's cheating on his wife, but that's really none of her business. He tries to shoo her away as if she were a stray cat, but she won't be ignored, Don. With shades of Fatal Attraction, Sarah keeps turning up, her intentions shifting from seductive to sinister. She is the stalker. She is the one who makes this space unsafe. But unlike Fatal Attraction, her ire is not also Don's oblivious wife or child — it's just on him. And that leads to a curious moment of cinematography.

As Don searches the house for a sneaking Sarah, he does so in a T-shirt and underwear. I was struck by the strangeness of this. Not that it's unusual for a man to walk around his home in his underwear, but it's unusual to see that in a horror movie. Women do it often enough, especially in slasher flicks where we're meant to be titillated by their exposed flesh before it's ripped to ribbons by a crouching knife-wielding maniac. But this moment in Girl on the Third Floor is not intended to tantalize the female gaze. For that, writer-director Travis Stevens might have made the brawny pro wrestler go shirtless, or the camera might offer a lingering close-up on his muscular arms or legs, taking in their strength and tattoos with silent awe. Instead, the shot is wide, establishing him as exposed in this space. It's shocking because men in horror are rarely shot so unaware, as this is typically reserved for women in horror. It's a shot that emphasizes their isolation and thereby their vulnerability. Such a shot not only sends a shiver down the viewer's spine as we realize how open they are to attack, but it also aligns us to empathize with them and root for their survival. That won't be the case with Don.

Don is a cad and a no-good bastard. He ghoulishly finds plenty of ways to disrespect his wife's trust. He drinks, despite promising her he'd give it up. He makes a mutual friend complicit in keeping the secret of Sarah. Later, he crosses a vicious and violent point of no return, pushing the audience to actively root against his survival. The shake-ups don't stop there. Instead of a gruesome comeuppance coming for him in the climax, it arrives far sooner. The film unexpectedly shifts focus to his wife, who comes to a house that is strangely riddled with holes and devoid of her husband. In the third act, Liz becomes the film's protagonist. Where Don's only interest in the house's dark secrets was painting over them, Liz investigates. The house's tragic past unfolds through expositional dialogue and disturbing ghostly spectacle, which ties Don's horrid behavior to a long history of misogyny committed within these walls.

The truth of the Girl on the Third Floor will be revealed, and it's that the ghosts who linger in this home, who lurk and ooze, are not the true evil of this horror film. The villain is Don, who lies and cheats and treats his wife like a fool and his lover like a tissue to be used and discarded. But it's not just him. The evil in this film is toxic masculinity, which encourages men to value their desires over the wants, safety, and consent of women. It's a sinister thing that lurks in the shadows, leers at the unsuspecting, turns an atmosphere ominous, and lashes out violently. In these respects, it sounds like a malignant supernatural entity. But for many, many women, toxic masculinity is an all-too-common foe, one they faced down in their everyday lives. That's why this movie is such a unique surprise. While such bad behavior may strut around without repercussions in the world outside, the haunted house of Girl on the Third Floor will bring these menacing men to their knees.

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