For his first time at bat as a director, longtime indie horror producer Travis Stevens delivers up his truly unique and wickedly weird take on haunted house tropes with Girl on the Third Floor, which also features Phil Brooks (who most wrestling fans around the world know as CM Punk) in his first ever feature film role. What’s so interesting to me, beyond the film’s narrative that takes some decidedly left turns out of nowhere—especially during the latter half of the movie—is how Girl on the Third Floor is centered around this character who is exploring this new path in his life, and both Stevens and Brooks are also branching out in new ways here as well, and that is something I not only deeply appreciate, but I think those types of parallels between real-life and filmic stories are incredibly fascinating to explore, too.

Set in Frankfort, Illinois (always fun to see my home state represented in movies!), Girl on the Third Floor is centered around Don Koch (Brooks), who has just bought a fixer-upper way out in the suburbs as he and his wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn), prepare to welcome their first child in the world, and are looking for a change of pace from city life. When Don arrives, his new abode isn’t in the greatest condition, with the plumbing a wreck, walls in desperate need of repair, and odd fluids oozing out of sockets and other orifices. With his wife still in the city working, Don sets out to create the perfect home for his growing family, but the more time he spends inside its walls, he quickly begins to realize that there’s much more going on with this house, and it’s going to take more than a few trips to Home Depot to fix the maladies of his newly purchased domicile.

And as Don is working on repairing the new homestead, we also learn that he’s in many ways working on repairing himself, with his new life out in the idyllic fringes of suburbia being his way of getting a fresh new start and making amends for his indiscretions—both personally and professionally. But because of his inability to control his own vices, Don gets himself tangled up with a young woman named Sarah (Sarah Yates), which only further complicates everything, and we watch as Don’s life quickly begins to spiral out of control, and that’s precisely when Girl on the Third Floor starts really ramping up all the weirdness simmering below the surface, taking viewers into something of a hedonistic descent into hell.

It’s really hard to summarize just what to expect from Girl on the Third Floor, but I did recently mention on social media that Stevens’ directorial debut feels like if Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft had teamed up to make The Money Pit, and I still feel like that is a pretty darn good summary in itself, so I’m sticking with that in this review as well. The film itself is a serious-minded horror effort, especially in the third act, but there are quite a few moments of comedy peppered throughout the story that really set up the off-kilter journey Don is about to embark on, especially as our lead protagonist, who is grossly unqualified to do any sort of home repair, sets out to try and do everything himself (there are a few gags here that reminded me of some of the torture Sam Raimi put Bruce Campbell through in the Evil Dead movies, and I found myself cackling at poor Don’s misfortunes as his character tries to do his best with his limited skillset).

As someone who has been watching professional wrestling for nearly 35 years now, I will admit that Brooks’ involvement in Girl on the Third Floor was a pretty big hook for me early on (especially because he was teaming up with Stevens here), and I will fully admit that as the film began, it took me a few minutes to settle into the idea of CM Punk as an actor—not because I didn’t think he could do it or anything (considering how compelling his character and promo work had been throughout his professional wrestling career, I was pretty confident I would enjoy seeing him make his foray into film), but because his work in the squared circle had become such a huge fixture in our home over the last decade, I knew it would take me a hot second to be able to separate Punk from Brooks, but I think his work on Girl does just that and it makes me even more excited to see his work in the Soska Sisters’ upcoming Rabid remake as well. And the thing about his character Don is that really, he’s not a great guy, and there are things that he does that make him very unlikeable at times, but it’s Brooks’ work here that makes him so damn compelling to watch despite his misdeeds, and that’s not an easy feat to pull off.

Girl on the Third Floor also features some incredible special effects (I will, of course, always take a moment to tip my hat to the world of FX whenever possible) from Dan Martin that rivals anything we get from movies that have 10 times the budget as Girl, and cinematographer Scott Thiele also does some great work behind the camera as well, especially when it comes to establishing the film’s central locale as another pivotal character to this story.

Now knowing what I do know about Girl on the Third Floor, I do wish the movie had gone off the rails a bit sooner (just because I am a huge fan of WTF-filmmaking, and there are some great moments of WTF-ery in this), but overall, Stevens has created a truly memorable directorial debut with Girl on the Third Floor. And while I still want to see him working in the world of horror as a producer (because his track record is so great), I am hoping that Stevens continues to direct as well, because he more than proves with Girl that he’s got what it takes to deliver up great genre stories of his own for the big screen.

Movie Score: 4/5

---------

Check here to catch up on all of our live coverage of the SXSW 2019 Film Festival, including reviews, interviews, and breaking news from Austin!

Heather Wixson
About the Author - Heather Wixson

After falling in love with the horror genre at a very early age, Heather Wixson has spent the last decade carving out a name for herself in the genre world as a both a journalist and as a proponent of independent horror cinema. Wixson is currently the Managing Editor for DailyDead.com, and was previously a featured writer at DreadCentral.com and TerrorTube.com where her online career began; she’s also been a contributor at FEARnet as well as a panelist for several of their online programs.

Wixson recently finished her first book, Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures, and is currently working on her second upcoming book project on special effects artists as well.