Though the title is a bit of a misnomer — there’s no slum here but spacious suburbia — “Slumlord” is an effective variation on stalker/home-invasion thriller themes. Somewhat compromised by a one-dimensional stereotype of a villain, Victor Zarcoff’s debut feature nonetheless ratchets up a fair amount of suspense and intrigue from the not-unfamiliar premise of a high-tech voyeur spying on a yuppie couple who have newly moved into his rental property. Pic should be able to parlay a positive reception at fantasy fests into decent home-format sales, with minor theatrical exposure possible.
Nondescript young marrieds Ryan (PJ McCabe) and Claire (Brianne Moncrief), the latter heavily pregnant, move into a ranch-style Southern California home (the film was shot in Escondido) despite the over-the-top ickiness of property overseer Gerald (Neville Archambault), an unkempt, open-mouthed, rasp-voiced, scraggly-haired man-troll who wears ugly wire-rims like Laurence Olivier’s Nazi in “Marathon Man.” “There are bodies buried in the backyard,” Claire half-jokes, though she isn’t kidding when she notes that Gerald smells like “spoiled mayonnaise.” Nonetheless, the place itself is a good deal, or so it seems.
What the pair don’t realize, though we do, is that Gerald has already rigged the home inside and out with tiny surveillance cameras, through which he observes their every waking, sleeping, eating and showering move. Thus he’s quick to discern that this soon-to-be-expanded family already has a brat in it: Queasy about this imminent, all-too-real chapter in grown manhood, Ryan is having an affair with a co-worker. Worse still, not only has he not informed Hannah (Sarah Baldwin) about his wife’s condition, but he’s also implied that he’s ready to leave the marriage, which he isn’t. Ryan is a garden-variety cad, not so much malicious as simply, hopelessly immature. We begin to think Gerald might serve a benign purpose in exposing this two-timing tenant’s escalating pile of lies. Unfortunately, nothing about Gerald is benign.
Zarcoff does a good job building tension over the fragility of both men’s secrets — sufficiently so that “Slumlord” can withhold all violence until a hectic siege climax. There are some minor plausibility issues, mostly revolving around the oddity of our protagonists apparently having no neighbors near enough to notice toolbox-bearing Gerald’s frequent visits when they’re not home, or to hear sounds of distress at the end. And the pic closes on a note that seems more crassly flippant than the preceding events have merited.
But its biggest debit — one that doesn’t sink the ship, but makes it a bit leakier — remains the skin-deep characterization of Gerald as a predator so by-the-book his mug might as well illustrate the dictionary listing for “pervert.” It’s very disconcerting when this seemingly sedentary blob of a man, who exists on take-out bacon burgers, sheds clothes a couple of times, revealing the torso of an aging bodybuilder —something of which the script might have taken explanatory advantage. But while Claire and Ryan are nice sketches of a recognizable generational/class type (as are their friends played by Jim Cummings and Heidi Niedermeyer), Gerald is just the troll under the bridge, albeit one sans backstory.
Resisting the temptation to rely overmuch on the found-footage element of the surveillance imagery, “Slumlord” has a straightforward economy of presentation that extends to all effective tech/design departments.