Directed by Jon Keeyes
It’s interesting that, approximately six years after showing at festivals, Jon Keeyes’ stuck in a room flick Doom Room comes out the same month as Escape Room hits cinemas. But cynical marketing or coincidence aside, this small Brit movie (previously known as Nightmare Box) is a more adult offering, without so much as an awkward numbers/ shapes puzzle in sight. This is not to say there isn’t a riddle at its core of course. Boasting a relentlessly bleak tone, that often makes it hard to watch, this film is also far more about someone imprisoned mentally instead of physically. Although unfortunately, its nastiness is not the only that that makes it tough going.
But on to the positives first! The premise is immediately interesting, and will engage viewers – even if its not unlike other thrillers/ chick noirs that have been released in its wake. A nameless woman (Stanton) wakes up in a small room with no memory of how she arrived there and, just as worryingly, no way out. She’s not alone though – paranormal presences known as Husband (Tompkins), Wife (Rochon) and Innocence (Tweedie) periodically pop up to keep her company and provide loose exposition and/ or threat. But just who are they really? And how do they know who she is? As you can likely guess, the answers to these questions, plus the wider mystery, lie in a tragic past she must plunder if she’s ever going to get out. Cue an intense trip down repressed memory lane as Jane Does figures out just what the heck is going on.
Regular readers may remember I’m a sucker for a small, confined and character-heavy horror (and thus I regard the superficially similar Gerald’s Game an all time classic). Hence a lot of the movies I’m most drawn to use chamber drama conventions to great effect, allowing for an intimate sense of dread as we really get to know our characters. To an extent, Doom Room does gets this right, with a decent plot at its core. Moreover, Keeyes quickly establishes an otherworldly feel. The titular room is austere, yet in the trippy lighting, and invocations of Alice in Wonderland it makes for an effective mix of the whimsical and macabre: arthouse meets grindhouse. Its a place that convincingly seems to operate outside normal confines of time and space, and fits the mental, perspective nature of the tale. As characters and sets emerge from the darkness, and what we see of the room changes, it really benefits from this menacing universe building. Stanton and Rochon are also very good at making you feel sympathy and fear respectively, taking to their parts well. Sadly, their efforts are not met by other cast members, meaning most of the key sequences lack the dramatic impact that’s practically written into them.
Speaking of writing, the script (co-written by Keeyes) often sounds like an early draft in need of another edit. Some story beats are laboured, with at times disappointingly repetitive dialogue. When it takes the form of two amnesiac women reminding each other they don’t know anything, its tolerable. But when it takes the form a raging puritan repeatedly spewing filth between gurns its overdone. There’s only so many times you can hear words like “cum” and “cunt” spat out by a religious nut before they lose their effect. Particularly when these sordid exchanges are accompanied by multiple scenes of sexual abuse and rape. At times, the dialogue also becomes exposition heavy – so as to keep the action in a single place rather than cheating with flashbacks. Although with the key twists being withheld until the third act, there’s a lot of waiting to be done in the first and second: fat that could have got cut. Crucial to this type of story is a ticking clock element – a McGuffin to provide a sense of forward momentum outside the metaphorical character journey, that’s annoyingly slow. Yet with the opening minutes establishing there are literally no means for the woman to escape, nor an immediately urgent fate to avoid (e.g. the walls closing in), the threat stays a little too abstract throughout. In other words, a good story with subpar storytelling.
Still, the closing reveal is expertly staged and rather moving despite the sometimes troubling build up. However, in the years between its initial screenings and new release some high profile outings have worked off a comparable conceit making the take home too predictable. This is not the only example of how horror films, and culture on the whole as a whole have changed since Doom Room was made either. Nowadays it’s difficult not find the overly cautious message interwoven through the fabric of the piece from the first scene, that borders on slut-shaming and victim blaming, deeply uncomfortable. To go into more detail would be spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there. But whilst I’m sure there’s irony intended, the viewpoints of some less savoury characters are seldom questioned by the narrative, and at points even internalised by the protagonist. Not a nice film, but then despite the timing this was never going to be Escape Room.
Doom Room is on demand January 15, 2019.