Review: ‘Room 203,’ starring Francesca Xuereb, Viktoria Vinyarska, Eric Wiegand and Scott Gremillion

April 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Francesca Xuereb and Viktoria Vinyarska in “Room 203” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Room 203”

Directed by Brian Jagger

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. city of Quincy, the horror flick “Room 203” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young women, who’ve been best friends since childhood, become roommates, and find out that their rented apartment is haunted.

Culture Audience: “Room 203” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching formulaic horror movies that take too long to get to anything that can be considered “scary.”

Eric Wiegand and Francesca Xuereb in “Room 203” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Room 203” had the potential to be a better horror movie, but this uninspired clunker goes downhill into a quicksand of stereotypes about a home that’s haunted by an evil spirit. Some of the technical aspects of the movie, such as the production design and the musical score, are up to basic horror movie standards. However, the movie’s screenplay and pacing have too many areas that drag with monotony and unanswered questions. Any real scares don’t happen until the last third of the film, but these terror scenes are completely formulaic and look like ripoff versions of better horror movies.

Directed by Brian Jagger, “Room 203” is based on Nanami Kamon’s Japanese novel of the same name. Jagger, John Poliquin and Nick Richey wrote the “Room 203” screenplay. It’s yet another movie about people who find out their home is haunted, and they didn’t bother to get any background information about the place before they moved in.

Even after strange things start happening in the home, it takes too long for anyone in “Room 203” to do a basic Internet search to get background information about the place. Even worse: One of the residents who’s being haunted is an aspiring journalist. It just means that she’s got lousy investigative/research skills if she’s so slow to think about doing something as simple as an Internet search on the history of the home. Maybe she should think about finding another career instead of journalism.

“Room 203” is set in a fictional U.S. city called Quincy in an unnamed state. (“Room 203” was actually filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana.) Near the beginning of the movie, wannabe journalist Kim White (played by Francesca Xuereb), who’s in her late teens, is about to move in with her longtime best friend Izzy Davis (played by Viktoria Vinyarska), in their first apartment together. Izzy is an aspiring actress who is grieving over the death of her mother Liana, who passed away not too long ago from an accidental drug overdose.

Kim’s parents Samuel White (played by Patrick Kirton) and Ann White (played by Susan Kirton) are reluctantly driving Kim to this apartment. Samuel and Ann don’t approve of Izzy, because they think she’s a bad influence on Kim. In the car, Samuel warns Kim: “You’re making a big mistake.” Ann, who’s driving, chimes in: “You step out that door, don’t come back to us asking for help.” Izzy isn’t a bad person, but there are obvious signs that she abuses alcohol. It’s also revealed that after Izzy’s mother died, Izzy tried to commit suicide.

The movie opens with a scene that leaves no mystery whatsoever about what will happen to anyone who ends up in Room 203 in the apartment building where Kim and Izzy are going to live. It’s actually an unnecessary introduction because it foreshadows too much what will eventually happen in the movie. A young contractor employee named Chad (played by Jeroen Frank Kales) is renovating Room 203, when he notices that there’s a hole in the wall with plaster dripping down from it.

When he puts one of his hands in the hole, Chad has trouble pulling his hand out. When he does, it has a bloody scrape on it. He also finds a brass necklace hidden in this hole. Chad’s supervisor Bob (played by Terry J. Nelson) shows up and tells him something about this particular apartment unit: “The tenants never stay long, and that hole is always there.”

The supervisor continues, “I did hear this story. That cavity in the wall? It’s alive. It’s waiting. It’s hungry. And if you stare at it long enough, it becomes a glory hole.” He means the last sentence as a joke, but you can bet that the rest of what he said has some truth in it because this is a horror movie. Of course, Room 203 in this apartment is where Kim and Izzy will be living.

Later that evening, Chad gives the necklace to his girlfriend Lena (played by Cameron Inman), during a romantic nighttime rendezvous in Room 203, long after his co-workers have left for the day. Immediately after Chad puts the necklace on Lena, she starts making a choking sound. She then breaks a beer bottle nearby and uses the broken bottle to slit her throat, while a horrified Chad calls for help. Chad and Lena are never seen or mentioned in the movie again.

An untold number of days later, Izzy and Kim move in together at this cursed apartment. They meet their creepy middle-aged landlord Ronan (played by Scott Gremillion), who never cracks a smile, and he speaks to people in a condescending way. Ronan spends most of his screen time giving these two young women menacing looks when he’s seen lurking around. It makes it all the more obvious in this poorly written film that Ronan is probably up to no good.

Ronan tells these new tenants that the three of them are the only people who live on the floor, which he says is the last floor in the building to be renovated. Throughout the movie, no other tenants are seen in the building. Any sensible person in this living situation would want to find out why no one else is living in this very large building, but these dimwitted new residents never ask.

On the day that Izzy and Kim move into this building, Ronan does mention that it used to be a commerce building with a bank on the first floor, and the building’s other floors were converted to apartment units during the Great Depression. Ronan also barks out a list of apartment resident rules: No smoking, no loud noises after 9 p.m., no cats, no dogs. And residents absolutely cannot go in the basement. As soon as he says the rule about the basement, you just know that at some point in the movie, someone is going to break that rule.

Because Kim and Izzy have no credit history, Ronan also tells them that they have to pay all of their tenant expenses in cash, including the first and last month’s rent and a deposit for damages. This “cash only” policy is worth it to Kim and Izzy though, because this apartment is renting for a price they can afford. And the apartment comes fully furnished.

Room 203 has a large stained-glass window with religious imagery that depicts battle scenes. When Izzy walks over to touch the stained glass, Ronan angrily orders Izzy and Kim to never touch the stained glass because it’s a historical building, and there better not be any damages. And it’s yet another point in the movie where you know that rule will eventually be broken too. “Room 203” has absolutely no subtlety at all.

You know what happens next: After Kim and Izzy start living in Room 203, eerie and spooky things start to happen. Izzy finds the cursed necklace that caused Lena to kill herself. And before you know it, Izzy starts acting strange. More than once, Kim finds Izzy walking around in a daze, holding a circular music box that has figures of a man and a woman in a dance embrace inside the box. In one scene, while Izzy is in this trance, Kim finds Izzy with blood dripping down her forehead from a head wound.

Soon after moving in, Kim discovers the hole in the wall. She also starts to have nightmares about it, such as seeing a black bird flying out of the hole and coming to attack her. All of the “scares” in this movie are stereotypical and quite boring. Kim also appears to hear voices coming out of the hole in the wall, which eventually gets covered up with wallpaper. Not that it’s going to stop the obvious evil spirit lurking in the room.

“Room 203” drags the story out with a lot of scenes showing Kim and Izzy pursuing their career choices and meeting potential love interests. Soon after they become roommates, Kim and Izzy hang out at a bar, where they meet two guys who are a few years older: Steve (played by Sam A. Coleman) and Tony (played Quinn Nehr), who have a flirtatious conversation with Kim and Izzy.

However, Steve gets inappropriate when he starts rubbing Kim’s leg with his hand without her consent, and he ignores her request to stop. When Steve calls Kim a “bitch,” Izzy gets angry and punches Steve hard enough to knock him to the ground. Izzy, Tony and Kim then quickly leave the bar and go back to Izzy and Kim’s apartment.

Kim calls it a night and goes to bed. Tony and Izzy are attracted to each other, so they start kissing. Tony thinks it will lead to sex with Izzy, but she’s so drunk that she passes out. A disappointed Tony stays in the apartment and ends up in the bathroom, where out of nowhere, a knife gets plunged into his abdomen.

The next morning, Kim and Izzy don’t see Tony, so they both assume that he left the night before. There’s no sign of Tony’s blood in the bathroom, or no explanation for what happened to Tony’s dead body. Tony is never mentioned again in the movie. It’s an example of how substandard “Room 203” is when it comes to its screenplay.

Kim has enrolled as a journalism student at Quincy College of the Arts, where she meets a fellow student named Ian (played by Eric Wiegand), who is friendly, respectful and a little on the nerdy side. Ian is also a journalism major. He wants his specialty to be video journalism, while Kim wants to be a journalist with written work. Ian and Kim predictably start dating each other.

Meanwhile, Izzy (who’s openly bisexual or queer) meets a woman named Sandy (played by Bria Fleming) in a bar, and they start dating casually. Sandy just happens to be a casting agent assistant, so she helps Izzy land an audition. “Room 203” never actually shows Izzy doing this audition or going on any casting calls, but Izzy does mention to Kim what she’s doing to try to find work as an actress.

Another time-wasting subplot to the movie is when Kim gets a school assignment to do an analytical profile on someone, so she chooses to write about Izzy (without using Izzy’s name or asking Izzy’s permission) in an essay called “Those Left Behind” It’s a psychological profile of someone grieving the death of a loved one from an overdose. This essay has a lot of personal details about what Izzy is experiencing.

What does all of this have to do with the horror story? Almost nothing, but these are examples of how “Room 203” gets sidetracked with a lot of filler instead of focusing on what should have happened earlier in the movie: Kim finding out the history of Room 203 and why it appears to be haunted. The explanation is extremely unsurprising and underwhelming. It all just leads to a hokey showdown that looks like a mundane retread of other climactic scenes in dozens of other horror flicks.

The performances in “Room 203” range from average to unimpressively amateurish. Wiegand (who has the best acting skills in the movie) and Xuereb share some good scenes together, as Kim and Ian’s budding romance looks very believable. Xuereb and Vinyarska aren’t entirely convincing as longtime best friends Kim and Izzy, but that has a lot to do with some of the cringeworthy dialogue that the cast members have to say. As for Gremillion’s portrayal of the mysterious and perpetually scowling Ronan, it’s the worst performance in the movie. Gremillion’s acting (which alternates between being hammy and stiff) in “Room 203” is likely to elicit some unintended laughs from viewers at how Ronan looks constipated instead of terrifying.

“Room 203” isn’t a completely horrible movie. It just doesn’t do anything that’s original or very thrilling. The apartment basement is predictably dark, dingy and has flickering lights, which are really just strobe light effects. Places that are supposed to be “scary” are just poorly lit. Worst of all, the story behind the evil spirit is very muddled and vague. And it just makes “Room 203” a time-wasting horror disappointment when the movie never bothers to explain the origins of the demonic ghost that’s causing all of the terror.

Vertical Entertainment released “Room 203” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Paranormal Prison,’ starring Todd Haberkorn, Paris Warner, Don Shanks, Corynn Treadwell, Easton Lay and Brian Telestai

February 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Todd Haberkorn in “Paranormal Prison” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Paranormal Prison”

Directed by Brian Jagger

Culture Representation: Taking place in Boise, Idaho, the horror flick “Paranormal Prison” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Native American) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A group of YouTube paranormal investigators, who are led by a cynical skeptic, visit an abandoned prison that is supposedly haunted.

Culture Audience: “Paranormal Prison” will appeal primarily to people who will watch any horror movie, no matter how terrible or boring it is.

Corynn Treadwell and Paris Warner in “Paranormal Prison” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Horror movies have a reputation for being extremely derivative because so many of them recycle the same ideas that dozens of other horror flicks have already done. Slasher flicks have a maniac on the loose. Ghost stories have a group of people trapped somewhere with a spirit that’s supposed to be terrifying. And so, with originality not usually being a characteristic of a lot of horror movies, these movies should at least have some level of suspense and plenty of scares. Unfortunately, “Paranormal Prison” (directed by Brian Jagger) fails on every level of what makes a good horror movie.

“Paranormal Prison” looks like a student film that was made without any experienced filmmakers giving much-needed suggestions on all the improvements that should have been made to this embarrassing dud. This 70-minute movie is a terrible bore that, at best, should have been a short film instead. If you want to watch a feature-length movie where almost everything except for the last 15 minutes consists of people monotonously walking and talking in what’s supposed to be an abandoned prison, then go ahead and waste your time watching “Paranormal Prison.”

“Paranormal Prison” borrows heavily from the “Paranormal Activity” concept, including repeatedly using screens that show icons for recording activity and battery life, to replicate video recordings from the camera-operating perspective. The very thin plot of “Paranormal Prison” is that four paranormal investigators go to an unnamed abandoned prison in Boise, Idaho, to find out if the stories are true about the prison being haunted. The investigators are all in their 20s, except for their leader, who’s in his 30s. They are the staffers for a YouTube channel called The Skeptic & The Scientist, whose purpose is to debunk paranormal activity stories.

The four people on this excursion are:

  • Matthew (played by Todd Haberkorn), also known as The Skeptic, who’s the group’s cocky and obnoxious leader. Matthew is financing the YouTube channel with his trust fund money. He constantly likes to tell the other people on the team that they have to do what he says because he’s paying for everything.
  • Sara (played by Paris Warner), also known as The Scientist, is a self-described “tech geek.” She has invented a paranormal detection device that she will test for the first time in the abandoned prison.
  • Ashley (played by Coryn Treadwell), the channel’s sound technician, is a military veteran who joined the paranormal group after experiencing a personal tragedy that she talks about in the movie.
  • Jacob (played by Brian Telestai), the channel’s camera operator, is romantically involved with Ashley, even though his boss Matthew has a romantic interest in her too.

Matthew and Sara are the co-hosts of The Skeptic & The Scientist. Matthew doesn’t believe in ghosts, while Sara is open to the idea of ghosts existing if there is scientific proof. Even though Matthew and Sara co-host the channel, he never lets her or anyone else forget that he’s in charge. Because Matthew doesn’t believe that spirits exist, he doubts the effectiveness of Sara’s invention, which she calls a syncotron kinetic energy testing computer.

The abandoned prison that these paranormal investigators will be visiting was shut down in 1973, after its last big prison riot. The prison had a section for men and a section for women. According to a montage of local citizens being interviewed in grainy video footage, there was a government cover-up of a 1939 riot at the prison, where three prison guards were killed during this riot. Ever since the prison was permanently closed, it’s become known as a haunted site, and tours are given to the public.

The prison is said to be haunted by serial killer Mary Beth Flake, a local heiress from the early 1900s who was convicted of murdering several people (including her husband) because they were opposed to her suffragette activities for women’s right to vote. The abandoned prison also has an eerie reputation because people who make any recordings inside the prison find out after they leave the prison that their recordings are blank. The prison is about to be torn down and condominiums built in its place.

The Skeptic & The Scientist team members are the last people who’ve gotten a permit to film inside the prison before the building will be demolished. The four paranormal investigators go to the prison and are greeted by an assigned park ranger whose last name is Shtog (played by Easton Lay), and he gives them a guided tour of the run-down facilities. This begins the long-winded majority of this tedious movie, where it’s nothing but all five of them going from room to room while filming and talking. They’re supposed to be the only people in the prison . But are they really? The crew sets up some surveillance equipment, and not much happens for most of the story.

During this tour, Shtog tells them more details about Mary Beth Flake, whose photo is shown several times in the movie, as if it’s supposed to be scary. The local folklore about Mary Beth Flake (played by Amanda Fitch, because you already know that this movie will show her as a ghost) is that she is always associated with four roses. There’s a bushel of four roses growing year-round outside the prison that are supposedly kept alive because of the spirit of Mary Beth Flake. And the local legend is that if any of the four roses start to go away, that means trouble is coming.

Over the years, people who had ghost sightings at the prison reported smelling roses before they saw the ghost. The four roses are there when the team arrives at the prison. But it should come as no surprise that one of the four roses has gone missing while these visitors are inside the building. Sara is the first to notice the missing rose. She becomes frightened and asks the other people who has the flower. The other people there deny that they took the rose.

During the tour, the investigators see a large male mannequin lying on a bed in a prison cell. Shtog explains that the mannequin is of a real-life prisoner named Black Wolf, a Native American who was incarcerated during the same time as Mary Beth Flake. According to Shtog, she hated Black Wolf because he wasn’t white, and the two became mortal enemies. Predictably, Black Wolf (played by Don Shanks) is more than a mannequin in this movie.

During the long stretch of time when not much happens in the movie, there are some very weak attempts to bring some scares, by showing glimpses of shadows. Matthew mouths off a lot and becomes more and more irritating as the story goes on. Sara’s invention is supposed to work by showing a green light if it detects humans and a blue light if it detects a paranormal entity. But it’s questionable if they really need this invention because these paranormal investigators still get ambushed. And there’s at least one predictable “fake scare” scene in the movie.

“Paranormal Prison” director Jagger wrote the movie’s screenplay with Randall Reese, and it’s their first feature film. This lack of experience shows in the worst ways. “Paranormal Prison” is an example of a badly made movie that’s ruined by unnecessary filler. And certain details that should have been intriguing, such as the story about the four roses associated with Mary Beth Flake, end up being irrelevant to the movie’s conclusion.

The acting performances in this movie range from mediocre to downright awful. The filmmakers deserve some credit for not having sexist horror clichés of making the male characters the smartest ones who always come to the rescue of “weaker” female characters. In “Paranormal Prison,” the female characters are more intelligent than the male characters. But that’s not saying much when all the movie’s characters are stuck with forgettable dialogue, and the acting just isn’t very good at all. And because almost the entire film takes place inside a run-down building, there’s nothing impressive about the movie’s production design.

The last 15 minutes of “Paranormal Prison” are rushed, with scares and chase scenes crammed in, almost as afterthoughts. And a backstory is quickly introduced to explain why the prison is haunted. But these plot developments are too little, too late. “Paranormal Prison” is an apt title because viewers unlucky enough to watch this entire movie will feel like they’re trapped in a jail cell of unnaturally horrible and repetitive boredom.

Gravitas Ventures released “Paranormal Prison” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.

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