Any parent can tell you that raising a child is a frightening prospect. It’s no surprise, then, that the queasy sublimated fear of a growing, puking, shrieking alien Thing in the house has fueled many a classic horror film, from Rosemary’s Baby (about pregnancy) to The Exorcist (about pre-pubescent kids acting out) to Carrie (about teenagers acting out). Kids: at any age, they fuel nightmares about loss of control and comprehension.
The Shudder horror movie The Room, newly released on DVD by RLJE Films, puts a new twist on the genre of offspring-horror by addressing multiple child-development stages at once, to create an ugly, puling, acne-scarred smorgasbord of parental nightmares. The breadth of the endeavor is unexpected, and it lets debut director Christian Volckman guide his film through a number of clever twists. Unfortunately, the lack of focus also leads to a lack of intensity. The Room does get at some of the mundane tedium of child-rearing. But that doesn’t exactly make for a great horror film.
The Room starts as a young attractive professional couple, Kate (Olga Kurylenko) and Matt (Kevin Janssens) move to a remote Maryland town to rehab a house. In the course of their renovations, they open a mysterious locked room which will magically grant them anything they want. All they have to do is ask. Then the house lights flicker, and whatever they desire is sitting there: bourbon, Van Gogh paintings, money, and more.
What the two really want, though, is a child. Kate has had multiple miscarriages. When she asks the room for a baby, it gives her a boy they name Shane. After some uncertainty and argument, they decide to keep him. As anyone who’s read W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw” could have predicted, things go steadily, albeit inventively, wrong from there.
The strongest aspect of The Room is the way it shows Kate and Matt’s relationship changing after Shane comes into their lives. Every parent with a partner worries how the introduction of a small third wheel will affect love, sex, and household chores. The Room is solid at sketching a series of convincing worst-case possibilities.
At the beginning of the movie, Kate is an accomplished translator who strides about the house in overalls, competently contributing to home renovations. When Shane shows up, though, she’s quickly and helplessly maneuvered into claustrophobic, overprotective domesticity. Her interests contract to Shane, who resents her hovering and the seemingly arbitrary limitations she sets on him.
Matt, meanwhile, descends into paranoid, Oedipally tinged jealousy of the bond between his wife and not-son, the latter of whom he wants to both protect and destroy. Tensions only worsen when the family money starts to literally go up in smoke, even before the central couple starts thinking about a college fund. The child infests and warps the family unit, hoovering up resources, and alienating Kate and Matt from each other.
That setup is solid, but the execution is less so. In really effective offspring horror like The Witch or Hereditary or The Shining, the filmmakers carefully build up the dysfunctional family dynamics before the supernatural weirdness starts, so the escalating darkness has a queasy karmic resonance.
But The Room — with an hour and 40 minutes in which to cover infancy to adolescence — skimps on the setup. Is Matt a sexist abuser, like Jack in The Shining, or just a good guy caught in a bad situation? The structure of the film suggests that Kate should be torn between her career and child-rearing, like the mom in The Exorcist. But she doesn’t seem to care much about her translation job, and she’s granted no other non-familial ambitions. Kurylenko and Janssens are perfectly competent actors, but neither has the gravitas to create a memorable character in the teeth of the incoherent script. As a result, the darkness in the film seems to occur off to the side of Matt and Kate’s personal foibles, rather than growing from them like some malevolent, fanged child.
Shane’s development also suffers from the movie’s uncertain pacing and unwillingness to commit. Demonic children are a solid horror staple, but The Room is oddly tentative in imagining Shane’s uncanniness. He doesn’t urinate in the living room while intoning, “You’re going to die up there,” like Regan in the Exorcist; his eyes don’t have the unearthly glow of the kids in Children of the Damned; his smile isn’t haunting like Damien’s in The Omen.
Instead, the best Shane can muster is a peevish crankiness. He refuses to pay attention while Kate teaches him to read. He throws eggs at the wall. Yes, he seems like a fairly exasperating, high-maintenance kid, but not a psychotic or unnatural one. When he starts doing truly horrible things toward the movie’s end, his actions seem unmotivated, and not fully justified by what’s gone before. Again, the build-up and foreshadowing — generally the best part of horror films — falls flat.
The weak pacing and characterization mean The Room is less fun to watch than it could be. But what really leaves a bland aftertaste is its indifferent handling of its own deeper concerns.
At first The Room toys with a critique of middle-class capitalist greed and consumption. “I know your kind. Creatures of need. You crave and you crave and you crave and then you die,” one foreboding expositor tells Mark. But the truth is that neither Mark nor Kate seem that materialistic. They don’t have desperate money troubles. Kate can barely figure out what to ask for when they first figure out how the room works, and when she finally wishes for money, Mark is dumbfounded, and asks, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Rarely has the “be careful what you wish for” trope been deployed on a couple with less interest in wishing.
After Volckman figures out that he doesn’t really care that much about capitalism, he begins to circle around topics like reproductive choice. Matt pressures Kate about reproductive decisions in very uncomfortable ways. At the same time, abortion and conventional adoption seem like options the couple should actively consider at various points in the narrative, but neither is ever mentioned. Rather than using contemporary debates and contexts around child-rearing to enrich the movie, Volckman carves out a magic chamber where parental options are artificially limited. As a result, the plot at many points feels contrived, and the themes confused.
The Room isn’t terrible, and it isn’t unwatchable. On the contrary, horror fans will find it an entirely competent, occasionally ingenious genre exercise with an unusual surfeit of ideas. And it’s precisely that surfeit of ideas which makes the execution disappointing. The Room isn’t exactly a failure. But the delights it promises are much less satisfying and much more ephemeral than the ones it seems to offer. Instead of extravagant fulfillment, all that poofs into existence are some familiar and quickly dissipating pleasures. Viewers can only hope that Volckman births some less disappointing creative progeny in the near future.