Let’s talk horror of the modern age. With the huge success of studio darlings like It, Us, and Halloween, as well as smaller, artsier films like Hereditary, The Witch, and It Comes at Night, there is a big discussion of the prospect of “Elevated Horror,” whatever the hell that means. While horror definitely has a greater percentage of success among audiences today, with more passion-driven filmmakers behind the camera and keyboard of these films as opposed to directors-for-hire, it certainly might seem that horror might exist on a higher plain in the sheer quantity of its quality, but horror has always been good. What fails to exist in this new world of horror are effective B-movies that are played clever enough to work beyond just on a surface level. Although some films, like Happy Death Day, Revenge, and even Darren Aronofsky’s mother! toy with the premises of self-aware camp, they don’t often make waves with audience members as much as other, sometimes more serious films do, commercially, critically, or societally.
Room for Rent is never going to be described as “Elevated Horror” (not that I feel like anything ever should be), but there’s an understanding in its pure essence that it’s not a film that’s seeking to be that. It seeks to exist in the realm of B-horror as something to be enjoyed, rather than critically analyzed. It’s a straightforward story with a straightforward execution and a slight twist on an old story. Sometimes that’s all a film needs if it’s done right in how its made.
Room for Rent, despite all its, for lack of a better term, quirks, doesn’t work…at all.
Joyce (Lin Shaye) is a lonely, socially awkward widower who is tasked by the bank to pay her husband’s loan off after three months of missed payments. In her plight, she decides to use her home as an online bed-and-breakfast. While her first tenants’ visit has an awkwardly unfortunate end, she makes a friend in maligned girlfriend Sarah (Valeska Miller). Soon, she finds herself with a permanent tenant in Bob (Oliver Rayon), with whom Joyce develops a deep connection with. As time goes on, and her relationships with her tenants “grow,” those around her begin to realize that Joyce might be taking her job, and the personal friendships she’s making from them, way too far.
You’ve seen Room for Rent before a hundred times, and a hundred times better too. Whether it’s Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, or even Obsessed (which is the correct way to make a campy obsession thriller), the story has been covered before, and the modern twist of placing it in the Airbnb Generation doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from any of the similar films.
Shaye, known famously for her roles in the Insidious series, and Ouija, starts promising enough, but the issue with the character of Joyce is that she goes from 0-100 in 3.5 seconds, which leaves her with nowhere to go as a character at any given point. It also leads to a truly baffling story about a group of people ignoring the antics of a visibly deranged woman. Without a build-up to anything unsettling, it takes away any tension the film might’ve had if it had taken its time. It’s hard to believe why any person would do anything that’s done by any character in this film. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but watching ridiculously ham-fisted writing looking to capture anything resembling human behavior and failing miserably is another. It’s not the fault of Shaye, as she simply does what the film asks of her, which is at least commendable in its own right.
A film like Room for Rent should be unsettling, but this is a film that’s downright unpleasant for all the wrong reasons. Rather than building up to something scary and disturbing regarding Joyce’s psyche, we’re forced to watch Joyce undergo countless, and unnecessarily cruel, traumas throughout the film that makes us understand why someone like her would be the way she is. It seeks to explain her behavior, which makes her incredibly unscary and ineffective as a horror villain as we come to pity the woman for the abuse she goes through. It’s not emotional but simply mean-spirited. This drains the film of any fun to be had once you take away the lightheartedness that would make a B-movie like this enjoyable, which might just be the biggest sin of Room for Rent.
On the surface, Room for Rent is just a disposable direct-to-DVD film with not much to talk about with regards to its clunky writing or poor production value, but under the surface, it’s a much darker, far more unpleasant film that only seems to exist to make the audience deeply uncomfortable in the worst way possible. It doesn’t thrill, nor is it even slightly interesting enough to be engaged in thematically. It fails at everything it seeks to do and beats down the audience by making the film not only not fun, but as unpleasant as it possibly can be. Horror can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, or downright disturbing, but when tries to be mindless, while also making light of trauma and abuse, it fails.
In select theaters May 3, 2019.
Available on digital May 7, 2019.
Final score: 1 out of 5.