Something creepy is going on in room 203. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s just the apartment that two lifelong friends move into in this interesting horror film from director Ben Jagger. Based on a Nanami Kamon’s novel of the same name, the Japanese horror influence can be seen all over “Room 203”. You see it most in the slow, patient tension-building and in how its scares are often rooted in the psychological as much as the supernatural. And of course mood and atmosphere are essential.
But what surprised me most about “Room 203” was its welcomed patience. The trio of co-writers (Jagger, John Poliquin, and Nick Richey) clearly have something sinister at the center of their story. But they’re very deliberate and take their time getting there. In fact, for most of the second act, “Room 203” is more of a mystery movie than straight-up horror. Perhaps it’s a constraint brought on by the strict COVID-19 safety protocols and a limited budget. But it feels like a gutsy creative choice – one that works both for and against the film.
Shot and (I think) set in Shreveport, Louisiana, the movie introduces us to Kim (Francesca Xuereb), a journalism major ready for her first year of college, and her best friend Izzy (Viktoria Vinyarska), a boisterous aspiring actress. The two friends come with their own sets of baggage. Kim is at odds with her disapproving parents who see Izzy as a bad influence. Izzy is still struggling to cope with the death of her mom – a loss that took her to some dark places.
Problems aside, Kim and Izzy are all set to become roommates, renting an apartment together in a historic former commerce building. Upon arriving at the property they’re greeted by their pasty-faced and glaringly weird landlord, Ronan (Scott Gremillion) who shows them #203. It’s a dated but cozy pad with “vintage” furnishings and accented by a beautiful but strange stained glass window. He wraps up his tour with a warning, “The basement is off limits to residents”. That’s always an indicator that we’ll end up there at some point.
The one detail Ronan left out was the apartment’s blood-soaked history (It’s no wonder rent is so cheap). Of course it soon comes to haunt the new tenants. Before long Kim and Izzy begin noticing a rash of unexplainable occurrences. There’s the ugly hole in Kim’s bedroom wall and the growing stench emanating from it. There’s the appearance of an old necklace and music box – totems that are clearly channeling some kind of malevolent force. And then there’s Izzy’s sudden sleepwalking (that’s never good, especially in a horror movie).
Kim begins suspecting something’s not quite right with the apartment and recruits the help of her fellow journalism student and potential love interest, Ian (Eric Wiegand) to help her dig deeper into the building’s history. Along the way, Jagger sloooowly ratchets up the horror elements, never shying away from using a number of well-known horror tropes – figures scampering by in the shadows, mysterious foul smells, creaking floors, milky eyes, etc.
In a way I really appreciated the slow-burn and how it gave the characters more room to develop. But the movie does reach a point where the wait for the horror to kick in starts to feel long. And like so many other movies in its vein, “Room 203” leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But these are hardly dealbreakers, and the movie’s strong points are enough to offset, and in several cases overcome, its shortcomings. “Room 203” is now streaming on Hulu and on VOD.