Flirting with the law of diminishing returns, Alex Merkin’s “Across the Hall,” the feature-length version of his fest-fave short, doesn’t quite surpass the sum of its parts. But superior tech credits and a surfeit of plot turns should recapture the 16-minute thriller’s fanbase, and they certainly make helmer Merkin a talent to watch. It’s a tale that would be impossible without the cell phone, which is the medium through which this creepy but uneven nailbiter — opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles — may find its largest aud.
With more twists than an Olympic diver, “Across the Hall” is richly atmospheric, beginning with the up-close-and-personal preparations being made by the Porter (Brad Greenquist) before beginning his duties at the Riverview, the kind of hotel where people might go to kill themselves. A little dusty, more than a little faded, it’s a place that — like its most faithful employee — is hanging on for dear life. And death has just checked in.
The principals in what becomes a three-way dance of calamity are shown from very different and, as it happens, disorienting perspectives. June (Brittany Murphy), who finds endless amusement in the bellhop’s sober demeanor, is bobbing along on some source of personal joy. Julian (Mike Vogel) is applying an icebag to a swollen knee and nursing a whiskey in the bathtub when he gets a call from his friend Terry (Danny Pino), who is either suicidal or homicidal; either way, he’s clearly out to end someone’s good time. How these three are connected, how they will intersect and where they are exactly are questions that will be answered — but not with a lot of urgency on the part of Merkin or scripters Jesse Mittlestadt and Julian Schwab.
The challenge of turning a solid short into a better feature is to expand what you have, and not pad it like an old sofa. In this regard, Mittlestadt and Schwab haven’t quite kept the pace of the storytelling brisk enough for Merkin’s ambience, which is haunted and conflicted: June’s blithe joy, Julian’s frantic energy and Terry’s festering anger all play in engaging contrast with the faintly comic/static qualities of the Riverview, which is good, but can’t afford too much scrutiny. It may be a wry setup, but it’s not exactly a gift that keeps on giving if the characters and their story aren’t in motion.
But while you’re waiting for “Across the Hall” to deliver the extra bath towels of nervous apprehension, the film’s sound design is almost guaranteed to keep the thermostat of suspense on high: From the eerie echoes that drift down the Riverview’s creepy hallways, to the sound of a cockroach checking out (under the discreet heel of the Porter), the audio portion of Merkin’s movie is a study in edginess and effective effects.
When the meat of the plot arrives, the film becomes a rather riveting trip into betrayal and revenge, with very little in the way of tipoffs or signposts. It is a source of wonder, of course, how so much dialogue can be delivered in an elevator ride from the first to the fifth floor, but nothing at the Riverview moves as quickly as one might like.
Production values are plush.