During his time in the WWE, C.M. Punk never feared taking risks. Setting his pro-wrestling moniker aside, Phil Brooks takes on a new challenge as the lead in Girl on the Third Floor. This haunted house horror-thriller flips the script on the subgenre's gender norms, putting a macho man at the center of its scary story. But that's not the only change-up this creepy flick has in store.
Following Girl on the Third Floor's world premiere at SXSW, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with Brooks to dig into the film's feminist themes, horror dreams come true, and the unexpected agony of shooting sex scenes.
Set in a beautiful but rundown mansion, Girl on the Third Floor begins with family man Don Koch (Brooks) rolling in with plans to renovate ahead of the arrival of his pregnant wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn). As a dude who is covered in tattoos and loves cheap beer and cheaper sex, Don groans over the interior's floral wallpapers and bright pink paint. But these are the least of his worries. Black gunk bleeds through panels and sprays from the plumbing. White goo oozes from outlets. Strange giggles echo through the walls. And this is just the beginning of Don's troubles. Things get much worse after he crosses the mysterious woman he invited in for a one-night-stand.
Though Girl on the Third Floor marks Brooks' first lead role in a movie, the transition from the ring to the big screen felt "inevitable" to him. "I'm 40 years old now, so I've been in front of a camera over half my life," he explained, noting he's always had the compunction to chase his passion. "Starting off in wrestling is very much parallel to indie filmmaking. It's like starting a band when you're a kid and you're young and you're hopeful and you just are full of ideas and the world hasn't jaded you yet. You're just like, 'How do I start a band?' Well, you just get an instrument, my friends are going to do this — and it was the same way with wrestling for me. It was just like, 'What do you mean you got to learn how? What do you mean you got to go to school?' I was just like, 'Whatever, I'm just going to be a wrestler.' It's just kind of like that innocence of just: Find something you love and just do it."
Quickly established as a creep who cheats on his pregnant wife, Don is a deeply unlikable protagonist, which is unusual for haunted house horror. But that didn't scare Brooks. In fact, he savored it. "I think being hated is the easiest thing," Brooks began, "because I can look at things that bother me (and channel them into it). In 2019, there's a whole shitload of it, but it's just like topical things, like toxic masculinity." To create Don, Brooks said he just imagined "that total bro dude that I wouldn't get along with and that I wouldn't like. It's easy to do."
As a longtime lover of horror movies, Brooks relished the chance to be in one. And he was especially stoked to be a part of writer/director Travis Stevens' gender-flipped version of a haunted house. "I got to just fall apart and be a scared little boy," he said. "You usually see the females in horror movies being chased by the monster, and now the shoe is on the other foot. And I got to fucking have a ball with it. Just, you know, just be a big crying mess. I got to shed the phony façade of being this hardass and just lay on the floor bleeding and crying and, 'Oh, why me? Why me?'"
In Girl on the Third Floor, Brooks' Alpha Male goes through all kinds of torments, which seem pretty physically demanding. But what presented the greatest challenge to this former pro wrestler? "The most physically challenging thing was the sex scene, believe it or not," Brooks said. "You'd never know by watching it, but it was the most uncomfortable, on top of the awkwardness. It was the most uncomfortable situation for me possibly. I can handle falling down the stairs or being covered in blood."
"I had to lay on an air mattress, which is uncomfortable as f*ck anyway," he explained. "I had to dangle my head off of the air mattress. So my neck is kind of vulnerable and uncomfortable; the blood's rushing to my head. They put a camera directly on my chest, so I got nowhere to go and my breathing is limited. I was being tortured half the fucking time too." And all that while being "straddled" by a scene partner. "You think, 'Oh, sex scenes, they've got to be the greatest. Hope I don't get a boner!' You know what I mean?" Brooks laughed, "The whole time I'm on an air mattress and I'm just like, 'I couldn't get a boner right now. Mainline Viagra into me right now and it's not happening.'"
Despite this nightmarish shoot day, Brooks looks at making Girl on the Third Floor as living the dream job, down to the eight hours of makeup application required for one big scene. "That was fantastic," he recalled "And the practical effects were amazing. Being a horror fan, being a kid who grew up watching things and wondering how Lloyd Kaufman smashed that kid's head in Toxic Avenger, you know? It was fun to be on the receiving end of it. I got to see how the sausage got made!"