"Certain places have personalities and sometimes they're rotten. Takes a real strong hand to turn them around again." - Pastor Ellie
Among the many heads of the discourse hydra of 2019 is the problematic nature of the filmmaker whose body of work generally speaks to their own experience. Namely, men who make movies mostly about men. When Martin Scorsese said that Marvel movies are “not cinema,” the fans wiggled their Mickey Mouse ears furiously and retorted with white-hot takes about the Mean Streets director's filmography. These takes (a surprising number coming from men) ran the gamut from erasure of his (several) non-gangster films to questioning why his latest, The Irishman, didn't effectively star and center around the main character's daughter instead of... the Irishman. Earlier this year, Time Magazine caught hellfire for running an article, written by a man, counting the number of lines spoken by women in every Tarantino film except for the one featuring four female leads (until the author was overwhelmingly called out on social media). It highlights the confusion among those who consider themselves allies: what makes a film feminist? What makes a filmmaker misogynist? Is there a quota of lines? A screen time minimum? Is the Bechdel Test even remotely useful anymore? What is the "right" way for a man to tell a woman's story?
This year, Travis Stevens kicked the door down with his directorial debut Girl on the Third Floor, a haunted house joint with far more than dry rot festering underneath its exterior. Stevens' is a sorely needed perspective, one of a man looking at other men and pointing out a common mindset among the bad apples and lone wolves. It's the perfect observation to unpack within the tropes and algorithms of a genre that highlights the monstrous.
Don Koch (former pro wrestler Phillip "CM Punk" Brooks) is a troubled man with some demons. An unemployed recovering alcoholic, Don's vague legal woes follow him into the Chicago suburbs as he buys a dilapidated house with money from his pregnant wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn). The opening images of the film show his work to be cut out for him: images of neglect and decay abound. A dead bee on the floor. An ornate but filthy picture frame. Tar-like goop in a sink. As the plot moves along, the walls secrete a semen-like discharge, marbles appear on the floor, and a mystery guest pitter-patters around the place.
The neighbors raise the red flags even higher. A pastor sighs, "this house has a history of bringing out the worst in people....you never really know until you start tearing it up, though." A bartender mutters, "that house just seems to be bad news to straight men." While Don remains oblivious, the audience sees the REDRUM on the wall as he tears away layer upon layer of the house's secret past.
One of the patriarch's first lines paints a clear picture of his disdain toward the feminine, "who paints a room pink?" In his defense, the dwelling itself is uniquely (and monstrously) feminine. Cinematographer Scott Thiele and production designers Courtney and Hillary Andujar all work magic to create a distinct visual style, lighting and displaying the interiors as a cavernous womb. It fits like a glove for a protagonist whose very nature is at odds with the feminine. The house knows his weaknesses and his need for control, and capitalizes upon them. Gaping holes ooze fluid. A milky discharge seeps from a power outlet. Later, a sink squirts a geyser of blood. These are all minor, foul annoyances for Don to overcome, and so he rushes forward with all the brusqueness of a colonist conquering a land that's already inhabited. His hands invade the walls, his phallic sledgehammer violates the salmon-hued living spaces. He fingers old pipes, covering his hands in mysterious goop in a tireless Sisyphean quest to make the house bend to his will. Because really, the house isn't just a house for him: it's a second chance. A chance to prove that he's not a royal screw-up to his wife, whose peace he betrayed in the past by not only embezzling client funds but by cheating on her. Above all, Don is trying to reclaim the upper hand, a lost sense of masculine power.
Here's where the toxicity plays heavily and with purpose: it's clear that he's not trying to change the parts of him that factored into these indiscretions. The recovering alcoholic hits up a local watering hole for a drink in the evenings. Beer bottles line a mantle, and he tells his wife "don't be paranoid" when she nervously points them out via video chat. He begins the day with a nice morning jog and immediately turns his grinning head to check out a woman jogging past him. His constant battle cry is that he's "earned" these things. Don is the kind of guy who thinks that these vices and bodies are his for the taking. Then Sarah shows up.
Sarah (Sarah Brooks) is a temptress, sure enough, and Don puts up minimal resistance before betraying his wife yet again. But once he has his fun with her, he finds that she won't go away. While Don treats their dalliance as a "look what you made me do" situation, Stevens and screenwriter Trent Haaga present Sarah less as a femme fatale hellbent on ruining Don's life and more as an avatar for his septic little chickens coming home to roost. His brand of manliness is a cyclical beast that perpetually flexes its muscles and gnashes its teeth at the slightest resistance. Its problems are not solved by personal growth, only overpowered and wrestled into submission like so many leaky pipes.
Mr. Koch refuses to reflect on his actions, only on his self-imposed wounds, which makes the use of mirrors throughout the movie a brilliant one. They're focused on Don, sure, but they're also used peripherally to show secrets hiding in plain sight. The house's history turns out to be a decades-old macrocosm of Don's inner nature, taken to its logical and sinister conclusion. In this sense, the film runs parallel to an undersung gem from the Video Nasty era, The Nesting (1981). Without spoiling too much, the specters of both are remnants of brutality not borne of naturally violent men*, but of a malignant culture that emphasizes physical aggression and dominance over women as the yardstick of manliness.
When we talk about changing the landscape, the Strong Female Lead is always nice. It has been ever since Ripley blew a Xenomorph out of the goddamn airlock and saved Jonesy the cat.** But in the discussion about these men and the damage they inflict, it can be necessary to include those caught in the fallout. Excising the women caught in the splash zone renders the spectacle incomplete. Imagine Taxi Driver without Iris and Betsy. Joe without Melissa Compton. It's a delicate process to depict their torment without endorsing the violence against them, especially when the male gaze is involved, but it's crucial to bring full depth to both character and commentary. As such, Stevens brings wifey Liz in for a full-bodied third act turn that brings it all home. The reductive synopsis would be that Liz comes to the house, kicks ass, and saves the day. And to a degree, she does. She has tea with a neighbor and, in a near-cathartic breath of confession, she lays out each indiscretion, not because the audience needs to hear it (Don and Liz' past is meticulously drip-fed to the audience just enough to get the context needed), but because her arc demands that she speak his sins into existence. From this third-act point forward, the narrative and agency belong to her. Finally, Liz sees Don for what he has consistently, stubbornly presented himself as: "a fuck-up."
Stevens' film meticulously operates on domestic violence, rape culture, bodily autonomy, and more, simply by zeroing in the worst element within the straight white male population. Third Floor understands the line of demarcation between plain masculinity (good) and the toxic goop that can drown the manliest of men (bad). This isn't a "men are trash" film. For Don, the most harmful parts of his masculinity -- rage, sexual entitlement -- are what defines him as a man. The two are synonymous. This is a story that dissects a vast villainy into the bits and pieces that we all see daily: in that "happily attached" friend who has a little something on the side, the brother who flies into a disproportionate rage over a board game, the ex-boyfriend who promised to change after every indiscretion. Further, it's about the bodies of women left in his wake, the feminine fixers and empaths who simply can't bring themselves to say aloud, "My husband is a fuck-up."
These are the tales I want to hear, more so than a raised fist of Grrl Power from men who don't and couldn't ever fully understand my experiences. I've never seen a shortage of the Strong Female Lead, in the form of the scream queen. Laurie Strode. Jeryline. Sidney Prescott. Ripley. Stretch. We know we're strong, because we have to deal with men's (and Boogeymen's) crap on the daily. But when a story comes along that looks inward, that says, "You shouldn't even have to deal with this, the problem is over in our camp," that's when my ears perk up these days. Masculinity tied up within science (Hooper) vs. raw instinct (Quinn) vs. bureaucracy (the Mayor) in Jaws. What it means to be a real man in Dog Soldiers. Nurturing (Frank) vs. brutal (Maj. West) father figures in 28 Days Later. These are some of the most riveting yarns that men have the power to spin, and I would love to hear them.
None of this is to wag a finger at male filmmakers and tell them how to do their craft. Creatives will tell the stories they feel compelled to tell, and far be it from me to tut-tut capable femme representation onscreen. You're talking to a superfan of The Descent and its all-woman cast, here. I'm saying that, in the great 21st century blossom of genre films, there's a wealth of social and cultural warts to slide under the microscope (as horror is wont to do). In the wake of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and countless pushes for acknowledgement, marginalized masses have been calling for the treatment of malignant causes and not just the ugliest symptoms. Male-identifying filmmakers' storytelling options aren't limited to the relative safety of "You go, girl!" plots.*** They can dive deeper.
For now, it looks like I'm getting my wish. In addition to Girl on the Third Floor, Adam Egypt Mortimer features a look into incel-esque territory in his Boschian hell-ride Daniel Isn't Real, and Leigh Whannell's Invisible Man trailer hints that the iconic Universal monster's Icarus-like hubris is analyzed as well as his perceived entitlement towards his ex-girlfriend/abuse victim. If this is a growing trend, count me in.
Sometimes we fear entering a conversation because we don't want to insert ourselves into a space that's not carved out for us. In those instances, we can still contribute by speaking truth to our own experiences and identifying the trouble spots in our fixer-upper communities. The tension is high, but the stakes are higher. In the current landscape, how can men effectively jump into the discourse as doers and not cheerleaders?
Grab the toolbox and look inward.
* Toxic masculinity doesn't assert that men are inherently evil and violent. That's not how this works, that's not how any of this works. The concept endeavors to tear down the harmful constructs by which boys and men feel compelled to follow in order to be "a real man."
** Get you a woman who can do both.
*** I say "relative safety" because if Men, Women, and Chainsaws and The Dread of Difference is any indication, it can still be a tricky minefield to navigate the portrayal of women onscreen in the horror genre.
Anya Stanley is a lifelong horror fan and writer whose work has been seen at BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., Collider, Dread Central, Vague Visages, Diabolique Magazine, and F This Movie!. She’s also contributed in print to Rue Morgue and Britain’s Suspiria Magazine, and has appeared on such podcasts as Certified Forgotten, the /Filmcast, and Splathouse. Follow her staunch defenses of Halloween 6 and other shenanigans on Twitter and Instagram.