I often complain that contemporary schlock horror films throw too much at you — the if-this-formula-demon-or-scare-tactic-doesn’t-work-try-this-one approach to keeping an audience goosed. That said, I’m not sure if bare-bones, we’ve-only-got-one-formula-scare-tactic-in-our-bag minimalism is the answer. In “Room 203,” a couple of besties — Kim (Francesca Zuereb), a freshman college journalism student, and Izzy (Viktoria Vinyarska), an aspiring actress and dissolute party girl still traumatized by her mother’s death-by-OD — find an apartment together in an eccentric old converted commerce building.
How do we know the place is meant to creep us out? Because they’re in room 203, which looks like a half-finished boutique hotel suite, and when you title a film “Room 203” you’re undoubtedly invoking “The Shining” (where it was room 237, but still). Because the landlord, in a newsboy cap and bowtie, is named Ronan (Scott Gremillion) and acts like the sole weird competitor in a best zoomer John Malkovich impersonation contest. And because the apartment has not one but two overly telegraphed demon features. There’s a big stained-glass window that pictures knights getting stabbed through their armor with swords. And there’s a hole in the wall, right in the middle of the vintage powder-blue wallpaper.
It’s a rather small hole that looks like the result of a plaster mishap, but if you try to hang a mirror over it, it won’t work. (The mirror will be gone, or will fall and break.) If you reach inside, you might find a mysterious necklace there; the hole will even grab your arm. It emits a weird smell and looks a little like a rotting wound. All in all, though, the hole doesn’t do very much. If Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion” had encountered this hole, she would barely have blinked a doe eye at it.
We assume that the hole must lead to the Other Side, a place of too many cheap scare tactics. The trouble with “Room 203” is that nearly all of it takes place on this side, and most of what happens there is maladroit enough to make you long for cheap scare tactics. The two roommates oscillate between you-go-girl brash and annoyingly clueless, because the dialogue they have to speak — three screenwriters labored over it, including the director, Ben Jagger — has that expository tinniness that doesn’t let you believe what you’re seeing. The J-student heroine shouldn’t have to say, “Call me romantic, but I think there’s something special about the written word.” No aspiring goth fashion plate like Izzy should say, “This is vintage, and I’m the queen of vintage!” No creepy landlord should say, “You went down to the basement. The basement is off limits for residents. Don’t go down there.”
The movie also features such generic totems of fear as a music box, a demonic amulet hanging from the necklace, black crows, a Celtic pagan symbol embedded in the stained glass, and the decades-old newspaper headline “Bank manager murders pregnant wife then commits suicide.” (And their initials are inscribed on the music box!) When Kim gets to college on orientation day, she’s late and winds up being given a private tour by the cute-geek orientation leader, Ian (Eric Wiegand). The classes are given remotely, but the fact that we never see a single other student on this campus makes it look like the filmmakers couldn’t afford to hire extras. The whole movie feels depopulated. Kim and Izzy are like roommates in a vacuum-packed chamber. You keep wanting them to go through that hole, just so they’ll get out of the house.