On the persistence of oversaturated genres, bad blond wigs, and the necessary virility of the dime-store handyman
The Disappointments Room Rogue Pictures
Director: D.J. Caruso
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Duncan Joiner, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Michaela Conlin and Gerald McRaney
Rated R / 1 hour, 32 minutes / 2.35:1
September 9, 2016
(out of four)
There must be a quota. This is my best explanation for the existence of The Disappointments Room. Because there must be a certain number of movies about families moving into brand-new houses that turn out to be haunted by dark spirits from the past. This is one of those movies. That is its defining characteristic.
The film is exposed by the sheer blandness of its execution, which suggests not that it's telling a story but fulfilling a duty. You want a haunted-house movie, we'll give you a haunted-house movie. Here it is, in all its instantly familiar, instantly forgettable glory. It might as well be in a shared universe with the year's obligatory demon-possessed innocents, hagiographed musicians and lonely assassins.
The film goes about the usual motions explaining why this haunted house is different from all the other haunted houses. That would be the title itself, which refers to secret rooms used by wealthy families generations earlier to secret away the deformed or disabled children they were too ashamed to present to "polite" society. Apparently they tend to linger around even after death, which is what Dana, David and their son Lucas discover when they move from the city into a grand old country house after (sigh) suffering a recent tragedy. (Behold the movie definition of "getting a fresh start," ladies and gentlemen.) The most potentially fertile material is in the dynamic of the new family, which is led by a working mom and a stay-at-home dad - much to the consternation of the small-town yokels locals, who practically collapse on their fainting couches at the thought of such a relationship. Dana (a blasphemously blond Kate Beckinsale) is an architect who has taken on her new home as her latest fixer-upper project, while her husband David (Mel Raido) takes care of Lucas (Duncan Joiner).
That sense of old-fashioned unwelcome has the potential to exacerbate Dana's increasingly unnerving experience in the new house, but like so much else in the film, only the bare minimum is done with the idea. The Disappointments Room is almost staggering in its perfunctory attitude, stepping through a theoretically spooky story with the energy of a daily chore.
The family's unexpectedly permanent guests are the Blacker family - in particular Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney, unsurprisingly potent as the menacing patriarch of a family with a dark secret or two) and his disappointment of a daughter, who seems to be trying to communicate with Dana about whatever it was that happened so many years earlier. (She doesn't think to try to communicate with anyone else in the house, of course, so everyone else - husband; son; random, never-before-introduced close friends who show up late in the film to witness a melodramatic drunken shouting match - believes Dana is simply going mad.) It should be noted that Dana is still recovering from the loss of her own daughter, which is as close as this film gets to emotional relevance.
In a haunted house there is always an uncomfortable coexistence of living and dead, past and present, and this movie adds (listlessly) other distortions of time and perception. Dana has visions and experiences that seem to last for hours, only for mere minutes to have passed when she escapes back into the comfort of her living room. The whole thing is a cruel joke on her, but the film is much more committed to clunky expositional exercises (i.e. the local historian who explains what a disappointments room is) than in exploring her state of mind - yet another sign that everyone involved just wants to get this thing over with. Let's just explain what happened with the Blacker family and get a few of these people out alive and be done with it.
Although that doesn't mean the film is without its share of needless distractions. For one, the film gives us Lucas Till as Ben, the handyman hired to help Dana out with repairs around the house. Based on the way he's written - and from what I understand about handymen in pulpy stories - he's meant to be a smooth-talking ladies' man oozing with masculine power. I mean, c'mon, he's the handyman. The muscles, the tanktops, the glistening sweat ... y'know, handyman stuff! Soap-opera gold. Except, as I may have mentioned, they cast Lucas Till in the role, and ... well, let's just say it's hard to imagine Lana Turner giving him the time of day if he showed up at her diner. The film cast a guy who still looks like a 16-year-old and proceeds to have him unsubtly flirt with - if not outright proposition - Dana, a scenario that comes across like a high-school kid hitting on his teacher. The movie is unaware of the comedy of the situation, probably because the script intended the role to be played by someone more virile. The subplot is treated like a garden-variety dangerous flirtation - the overconfident male making a pass at the damsel, when what we actually see on screen is a child flirting with a woman. He's basically Daniel Radcliffe in Extras, but the awkwardness of his overtures is unintentional, completely over the heads of the filmmakers. Considering the film makes a point of the perceived emasculation of the stay-at-home husband, the miscasting of the handyman - the presumptive contrast and possible threat - is not insignificant.
The torrid affair little Ben seems to want never materializes, which is just as well; for a film as lethargic as this, such passion would feel badly out of place. Even the ghosts are bored. The Disappointments Room continues the downward descent in the career trajectory of director D.J. Caruso, who seemed like an exciting voice with 2002's The Salton Sea, only to follow it up with a string of increasingly lifeless studio dramas and genre pictures (Two for the Money, I Am Number Four). This movie was a paying gig, I suppose. But he clearly needed the haunted-house genre a lot more than it needed him.