April 24, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by David Marmor
Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the horror film “1BR” centers primarily on a middle-class apartment complex with a predominantly white cast, with a few African American, Latino and Asian characters.
Culture Clash: An aspiring costume designer in her 20s moves into the apartment and finds out that her neighbors are not what they first appeared to be.
Culture Audience: “1BR” will appeal mostly to people who like suspenseful, well-written horror movies with an underlying social message, and viewers of “1BR” must be able to tolerate disturbing scenes of torture.
The title of the creepy and nightmarish horror flick “1BR” refers to the abbreviation that is often used in listing ads for a one-bedroom apartment. A one-bedroom apartment for rent is why aspiring costume designer Sarah, a woman in her early-to-mid-20s who’s recently moved to Los Angeles, attends an open house at Asilo Del Mar Apartments, which looks like a typical middle-class apartment complex. It’s a motel-styled, two-story apartment building with a swimming pool in the center.
The first person whom Sarah (played by Nicole Brydon Bloom) sees when she arrives is a friendly man who’s around her age. His name is Brian (played by Giles Mathey), who lets her in through the security-system entrance door. By the way that Brian and Sarah look at each other, it’s clear that there’s some mutual attraction between them. The open house is fairly crowded, and shy Sarah feels a little overwhelmed at these new surroundings and by not knowing anyone in the building.
Another person she meets is a senior citizen named Edith “Edie” Stanhope (played by Susan Davis), an apartment resident who’s called Miss Stanhope by the other tenant. Miss Stanhope has an outgoing disposition, but sometimes wobbles and appears disoriented when she walks. Miss Stanhope nearly falls into the swimming pool, and she’s rescued by some observant people nearby who catch her in time to prevent this accident. It’s unclear if Miss Stanhope is intoxicated or has some type of physical condition that causes her to act this way.
Sarah also notices that a creepy guy with glasses has been staring at her from several feet away, but he quickly moves out of her sight when he sees that Sarah has caught him staring. She is eventually greeted by building manager Jerry (played by Taylor Nichols), who has a pleasant demeanor when he asks her to fill out an application form. During their brief conversation, Sarah tells Jerry that she’s new to Los Angeles and doesn’t know anyone in the area. Jerry asks Sarah if she has any pets, and she says no, because she overheard Jerry telling other potential renters that the apartment building has a policy of no smoking and no pets.
However, Sarah has lied to Jerry. She does have a pet: an orange tabby cat named Giles that’s with her at the motel she’s been staying at until she can find an apartment. While in her motel room, Sarah has a tense phone conversation with her estranged father (played by Alan Blumenfeld), who is unhappy and skeptical about Sarah’s move to Los Angeles and her dreams of being a Hollywood costume designer. For now, Sarah is working as a temp administrative assistant in an attorney’s office.
Her father (whose name is not mentioned in the movie) expresses his disapproval, but there’s not much he can do since Sarah is an adult. In the conversation, the death of Sarah’s mother is mentioned, and it’s a touchy subject because her mother died of cancer. Sarah’s father is now remarried to someone named Diane, who clearly isn’t one of Sarah’s favorite people. When he tells Sarah that he’s going to fly out at some point to visit her in Los Angeles, Sarah practically hangs up on him. Later in the story, it’s revealed why Sarah has a lot of resentment toward her father.
Sarah is pleasantly surprised to get a call that her apartment application was approved and that she can move in right away. In reality, someone with limited financial resources, a low-paying temp job, no job prospects, and no parents or friends who can be co-signers on the lease would not be approved for this type of apartment. It’s the first sign that things are “too good to be true” with the building’s swift acceptance of Sarah as a tenant.
On the day that she moves in (with her cat Giles hidden in a blanket-covered cat carrier), Sarah sees Brian again and more sparks fly between them, as he offers to help her move her belongings into her apartment, which is No. 210 on the second floor. She politely declines his help and realizes that she can’t invite him into her apartment either, because doesn’t want anyone in the building to know that she’s broken the “no pets” policy by having a cat.
Meanwhile, Sarah is shown to be a very timid people-pleaser at her office temp job. She meekly complies when a demanding female superior orders her to work overtime on a project and clock out to work on the project, so the company won’t have to pay her for the overtime. Sarah’s feisty and foul-mouthed co-worker Lisa (played by Celeste Sully), who has the cubicle behind Sarah’s, is the complete opposite, since Lisa openly talks back and defies the same superior who tries to tell Lisa what to do.
Lisa is the type of person whose idea of giving a pep talk to Sarah is to reference her vagina by saying, “Vag up” instead of “Man up.” When Sarah asks Lisa where she gets the confidence to not be intimidated by the office bosses, Lisa tells Sarah: “I just remind myself that it’s my fucking life.” Although they’re complete opposites, the two women form a friendly bond.
Shortly after moving into the apartment building, Sarah attends a building barbecue that’s held near the swimming pool. She sees Brian, Miss Stanhope and Jerry again. Sarah also meets some of the other tenants in the building.
They include Jerry’s wife, Janice (played by Naomi Grossman); their pre-teen daughter Natalie (played by Hannah Altman); and a middle-aged married couple: attorney Oliver (played by Jaime Valena) and physician Esther (played by Earnestine Phillips). All of them seem very happy to welcome Sarah to the building as the newest tenant.
Sarah also sees the creepy man with glasses again. And this time, he approaches Sarah by giving her a book titled “The Power of Community” by Charles D. Ellerby. “You should read this book,” he tells Sarah. “It changed by life.” And then as quickly as he appears, he leaves again. Sarah doesn’t know what to think about this awkward exchange.
Even though the tenants in the building are very welcoming to Sarah, she experiences problems at the apartment as soon as she moves in. At night, Sarah hears the very loud sounds of creaky plumbing. The noise keeps her up at various hours. And one night, in one of her rooms, she finds a copy of the apartment building policy with the “no pets” rule and this threat written in bold, red letters: “Some people are allergic, you selfish bitch!”
Because someone has intruded in her apartment and knows that she has a forbidden pet, Sarah starts to feel even more frightened. But since Sarah doesn’t know when the threatening note was put in her apartment, it’s hard for her to figure out who could’ve done it. The apartment building has surveillance cameras, but apparently, the intruder knew that there was a surveillance blind spot near Sarah’s apartment.
During a visit in Miss Stanhope’s apartment, Sarah mentions the creepy guy who gave her the book. Miss Stanhope tells her that his name is Lester (played by Clayton Hoff) and that he’s a harmless widower who lost his wife to cancer. Miss Stanhope is a former Hollywood B-movie actress, so Sarah enjoys Miss Stanhope’s company and likes to hear stories about what it was like to make movies back in Miss Stanhope’s heyday. But Sarah sees more signs that Miss Stanhope is experiencing something that’s affecting her physical balance. Miss Stanhope says it’s just because of her old age and she laughs it off.
Meanwhile, the loud plumbing noises at night has caused Sarah to lose sleep, and it’s affecting her ability to think clearly and be alert in the office. Lisa notices that Sarah hasn’t been her usual self, so Sarah confides in Lisa about what’s been going on at the apartment. Sarah also invites Lisa over to her apartment to hang out and so Lisa can possibly hear the strange noises too.
What happens in the last two-thirds of the movie has a lot of spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that Sarah finds out the hard way that there are very sinister forces in the apartment. Are these forces supernatural or not? That’s something also revealed in the movie, which has some intense and graphic torture scenes that might be too disturbing for very young or sensitive viewers.
However, the violence in the movie is not gratuitous, and much of the horror is psychological. Writer/director David Marmor makes an impressive feature-film debut with “1BR,” which has a low budget, but the quality of the film is much higher than a lot of horror movies released by major studios. The taut pacing and suspense of “1BR” will grip viewers until the very last scene. And although some of the film’s concepts aren’t new—influences includes director Roman Polanski’s horror films and director Karyn Kusama’s 2016 horror flick “The Invitation”—”1BR” has a clever way of making social commentary about propaganda and conformity.
All of the actors do a perfectly fine, but not outstanding, job of portraying their characters. Brydon Bloom’s portrayal of Sarah is believable and empathetic, considering that she has to carry the film in almost every scene. However, the real strengths of the movie are the film’s story and the terrifying way that it’s told.
“1BR” also makes effective use of music, by infusing retro pop songs in some of the more horrifying scenes, such as the Three Thirds Orchestra’s cover versions of Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” and Merilee Rush/Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning.” Quentin Tarantino famously uses upbeat or sappy pop music in the violent scenes in many of his movies, so there’s a bit of that influence in “1BR.”
Best of all for a horror movie, “1BR” will keep people guessing about what’s going to happen next. There are many horror movies being made that are utterly predictable, but “1BR” does not have that problem. The ending is chillingly haunting and will stay with viewers long after seeing this movie.
Dark Sky Films released “1BR” on digital and VOD on April 24, 2020.