1BR (2019)

We all dream of finding that perfect place to live, be it a house, apartment or unit — somewhere that fits our individual needs and wants; for me, it’s a quiet place where I can write in the tranquility of my surroundings. We all know how difficult it can be to discover that ideal spot without having to worry about the hassle of dealing with annoying neighbors, shitty landlords, or, crummy old buildings. That’s the premise behind writer-director David Marmor’s debut feature, 1BR (short for 1 Bedroom) — the new slow-burn thriller making its way around the festival circuit — Fantasia, L’Étrange, Beyond Fest, Monster Fest, and so on.

‘What do you mean, No Pets Allowed!’

The film follows attractive, yet timid, twenty-something Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom); a young woman who moves to Los Angeles to get away from her controlling father, Gus (Alan Blumenfeld), who she’s resented ever since the death of her mother who passed away from cancer. With very little money in her purse, Sarah travels to Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer but winds up in a monotonous cubicle job where she befriends feisty co-worker Lisa (Celeste Sully). Lisa urges Sarah not to let others push her around. All the while, Sarah’s staying at a dodgy motel looking for a proper place to live so that she can prove to her dad that she’s independent enough to make it out in the world on her own.

The search leads her to a cozy one-bedroom flat at Asilo Del Mar Apartments, where dozens of potential occupants are checking out the last available room — people of varying ethnicities and ages; the place seems to suit Sarah’s needs entirely, bar its strict ‘no pets policy,’ as her only ‘friend’ in LA happens to be her cat, Giles. Whilst making her way around the communal sunlit courtyard, where the friendly tenants pass on a smile and a wave, Sarah helps an elderly ex-movie star who’s living in the building named Edie Stanhope (Susan Davis), which catches the eye of the building manager Jerry (Taylor Nichols). Although her chances at beating out the other applicants seem slim, Sarah lucks out when she receives a call from Jerry, who lets her know that she’s got the room — sure, she’s gotta sneak her cat in, but who’s gonna know, right?

‘… it’s time to wake up.’

At first, it seems as though Sarah’s won the real estate lottery; her room is luxurious, spacious and affordable. The community is friendly and welcoming as Sarah is invited to a group BBQ as soon as she arrives. Also, her hunky socialite next door neighbor Brian (Giles Matthey) potentially has the hots for her. However, the picture-perfect veneer begins to crack when loud noises from inside the walls (possibly the pipes) start keeping Sarah up at night. Thusly, being unable to sleep, she can’t seem to focus on her work or goals. On top of all this she’s also being followed by a creepy dude with a missing eye named Lester (Clayton Hoff), who’s trying to get her to read a book titled The Power of Community. Sarah voices her concerns to the others, but they simply brush them off, and, by the time Sarah receives a threatening note it’s too late — our hapless heroine discovering the horrific truth behind her new place of residence and that things are not as ideal as they initially seemed.

To divulge any more would be doing you a disservice as 1BR is best viewed cold, as the ‘fun’ (so to speak) comes from discovering the twists and turns for yourself. In a nutshell, the film is essentially a movie about cults — think of it as a cross between 2014’s Faults and 2015’s The Invitation — with filmmakers citing real-life alternative communities such as Synanon and Scientology as inspiration, 1BR exploring the ways in which cult leaders condition and integrate others into their warped little communities, along with the tricks and brainwashing techniques they employ to get people to conform to their distorted views of the world; be it education, marriage, selflessness and even the value of human life. When you’re no longer able to help the community, what’s the point of living, right? The audience also gets a sermon on the four ways that’ll make the world a better place for everyone.

Never look back

Obviously, it’s clear that producers Alok Mishra and Shane Vorster (from Malevolent Films) know their stuff — both having worked in test screening, the former for eighteen years and the latter for eight — as 1BR is a tight, taught 90-minute nail-biter void of any dry spots or patches. Whilst labeled as a horror, don’t go in expecting much in the way of full-on gore as most of the violence is psychological. The audience does, however, get a hint of torture-porn in a disturbing sequence involving some nails and hammer which had me squirming in my seat, but nothing is gratuitous. All of the nasty stuff in 1BR serves the narrative and aids in racking up tension.

Key to the success of most low-budget genre fare is the cast, who are all quite strong, chiefly lead Nicole Brydon Bloom whose large expressive eyes convey so much emotion (it’s clear that there’s a lot going on in her head). It also helps that she can cry in a variety of ways. Thusly, Bloom sells her role of the affable alienated protagonist — someone who starts out as meek and shy but eventually chooses to retaliate and fight back. As such, that ‘switch’ never comes off as completely jarring or out of character. Elsewhere, Taylor Nichols, Jurassic Park III (2001), does a good job as cult leader Jerry (he’s simultaneously calming and frightening), and while more could have been done with American Horror Story’s Naomi Grossman, she does okay with a pretty underwritten part.

‘Don’t let the eyepatch fool you … I’m a pretty good shot.’

All-in-all, 1BR doesn’t reinvent the wheel as we’ve seen a lot of this stuff before, but all those involved should be commended for their efforts here. The cinematography by David Bolen, who’s mainly worked on shorts, is slick and claustrophobic, whilst the performances, shocking surprises, and well-crafted set-pieces are all top notch. If you’re up for a perfectly paced pot-boiler, one that looks at the inner workings of how an unsettling type of mini-utopia operates, I’d urge you to check this little gem out — it just goes to show, the cost of high living can be total hell.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

1BR was screened as part of Monster Fest, Melbourne