Posted on July 24, 2017

The Disappointments Room Does Horror (Badly) by the Numbers

Dawn

2016                R                     USA                D. J. Caruso             85 mins.

The Disappointments Room has all the ingredients of a good horror film, which is perhaps part of the problem. The film seems content to fill in the colors of lines that have already been well drawn. It has no imagination, adds nothing new, and simply plods through the motions.

Married couple Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido), along with their young son Lucas (Duncan Joiner), move to an isolated old house in the country. Not surprisingly, we soon discover two things: 1. Dana and David have recently experienced a traumatic event, and Dana is not dealing with it very well; 2. The house they are moving to has its own traumatic past, one that soon makes its uncanny appearance to the more vulnerable Dana. She starts seeing things and soon the line between hallucination (or supernatural occurrence) and reality starts wavering.

The Disappointments Room doesn’t waste an opportunity to use all the stock-in-trade of the gothic / horror plot. There are multiple shots of Dana next to mirrors. (Don’t get me wrong, I can think about the function of mirrors in horror movies for hours, but in The Disappointments Room there is no meaning beyond the most banally obvious—Dana’s mind / reality is apparently splitting.) There’s a spiral staircase and lots of shots up and down it. There’s a room in the attic that doesn’t appear on the architectural plan of the house and—surprise, surprise—the door is locked. Like any good gothic heroine, Dana is driven to open the mysterious door at all costs, which she does. There’s a black dog straight out of 1976’s The Omen (and the sadly underrated 1978 film Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell.) There’s the conversation with the creepy lady who knows more than she’s willing to tell about the house, but you can tell none of what she would say is good. And there’s the montage of old newspaper cuttings, books, and photographs which make the house’s history glaringly obvious.

There might have been something interesting about all these gothic / horror tropes woven into one film: I’m always ready to see horror conventions put to new use. But they aren’t put to new use here; they’re just dropped into the film and abandoned. Moreover, the plot makes little sense and the acting ranges from average to bad. (Beckinsale as Dana is average and Raido as David is bad.)

When a film puts a damaged family in a damaged house there should be some connection between the two traumatic histories, some psychological explanation as to why the protagonists succumb to the influence of the house and its past. Great examples of this are The Amityville Horror (both the 1979 and 2005 versions), in which the trauma that gets replayed exploits a psychological vulnerability in the father / stepfather, and The Conjuring (2013), in which Carolyn Perron’s possession by a mother who sacrificed her baby to the devil highlights Carolyn’s own maternal exhaustion and ambivalence. But the connection between Dana and what once happened in the Disappointments Room is entirely absent. Her children were not “disappointments” as far as we can tell, and she doesn’t seem ambivalent about being a mother. In short, she’s not in the least like some unflinching, intolerant, savagely violent nineteenth-century patriarch. So why are we being asked to consider the connection between the two?  Since the film actually does try to play with gender expectations a bit—Dana is the successful professional architect while David seems mostly to be the caregiver—the connection between Dana and the erstwhile patriarch could be intriguing, but the film does nothing substantive with it. Definitely a wasted possibility.

Grade: D

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