Urban legend has it that, centuries ago, upper class families would keep mentally ill or physically deformed loved ones in a secluded upstairs room called a “disappointment room”. Now you know what the title of this film means, and now you know half of the big revelations in the latter half of the story. Co-written by Wentworth Miller and director D.J. Caruso, The Disappointments Room tries to serve two separate agendas; one a haunted house story about snooty aristocratic ghosts, the other a psychological drama about a family processing grief. It neglects one while it’s busy exploring the other, leading to a conclusion that feels half-baked, unearned and… well… Disappointing.
As the film opens, we meet Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido) leaving New York City with their young son Lucas and moving into a spooky mansion in a quiet rural town (which, incidentally, is located five minutes from my apartment.) While David and Lucas take their time settling into the new house, Dana begins seeing strange figures and hearing noises upstairs. She soon discovers a hidden room in the attic and sets about unraveling the tragedy of the family that lived there many decades ago.
The film makes liberal use of spooky camera tricks, loud jump scares and shocking images of gore to sell us on the horror, but it all plays as window dressing to the film’s other story. It’s revealed early on that Dana’s second child died very suddenly, leaving the whole family reeling with grief. Moving to a new town was supposed to give them all a renewed sense of purpose. Architect Dana could concentrate on renovating the house; Lucas could enjoy some stability for once; David could do… whatever it is David does. Instead, the bad vibes emanating from the attic give Dana a heaping bowl of depression with a dash of terror on the side.
Kate Beckinsale is quite good in the role, clearly digging deeper into the grieving parent angle than the haunted homeowner bit. Caruso and Miller’s script gives her little to work with, but she plays it off well regardless. The film forces her to lash out in ridiculously over-the-top ways, all of which lead to Dana questioning her grasp of reality. Lucas Till shows up as a local handyman who hits on Dana with every bit of charm he can muster. His scenes with Beckinsale have an odd energy to them; she rebuffs him immediately, but they keep coming back to it. It’s like the film is trying to escape into a clearly more engaging story.
Engaging, however, is not the word to describe Mel Raido’s David. He’s genial enough in the role, but the script can’t seem to find a real purpose for him. David claims he has a job, but he also cops to being a shiftless, XBox-playing layabout with a hot sugar-mama wife. In one scene he returns to New York for a business trip, but it turns out he’s actually just visiting his therapist. (So clearly, this couple is loaded.) David’s whole role in this film is to act concerned while never actually doing anything.
The film even illustrates his utter uselessness during a climactic dinner party. On one side of the room, Dana is having a nervous breakdown in front of everyone. Behind her is a blue piece of abstract art, full of sharp angles and intersecting lines. It’s moody and complicated, just like Dana. Then on the other side of the room we have David standing in front of a giant, glowing neon Krispy Kreme “HOT DOUGHNUTS NOW” sign. It is a ridiculous piece of imagery in the middle of this dead baby story, but it gets the point across. In Dana’s search for answers and meaning, David is about as useful as a glazed doughnut.
The whole film is every bit as subtle as that one scene. Dana’s ghostly encounters tell her to her face what a bad parent she is, as though insults from dead people are the ultimate in chilling existential terror. Characters reference Poltergeist by name, but Caruso instead chooses to directly rip off The Shining. There’s a little ghost girl who beckons Lucas from down a hallway, and Caruso uses every trick in the book to make the house seem larger and more foreboding than it is. I
I can admire this film’s intentions, but it wallows too hard in its characters’ grief to ever truly frighten anyone. It’s always fun to see movies made in your hometown, but that’s the only allure The Disappointments Room can rightly muster. It’s a local curiosity today, destined to become the most negligible of footnotes tomorrow. C’est la vie.
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