Sunday, February 3, 2008

Steve Hudgins's The 3rd Floor

Not every entertaining or interesting horror film entered in the Tabloid Witch Awards can win. This is partially because every winning film expects to be screened at our festival, but the available screening time is limited.

However, the Tabloid Witch's original intent was to publicize the work of new horror filmmakers; the screening was supposed to be secondary. And many films that don't win nevertheless do have some merit.

One of 2007's entries that I personally enjoyed, despite its flaws, is The 3rd Floor. This is Kentucky-based Big Biting Pig Productions's first feature film. It's about a couple who move into a building in which the 3rd floor is sealed off. Strange noises emanate from that floor. The husband has nightmares about that floor. Naturally, he investigates, and discovers the 3rd floor's dark history. Whereupon a series of ghostly possessions turn this story into a slasher film.

Why didn't The 3rd Floor win a Tabloid Witch?

Well, like many low-budget, first-time efforts, the film's production values fall short of professionalism. The lighting was flat, and portions of some shots were over- or under-exposed. Occasionally, there was that hollow sound, caused when actors' voices bounce off hard surfaces (where were the sound blankets?). And some of the editing was rough, shots poorly pieced together.

Likewise, much of the acting could have been better. Lines were often delivered in a stilted manner, recited rather then felt.

The film also suffers from unmotivated framing. For instance, in one scene, the couple and the brother sit as they converse. Normally, the camera would be at roughly eye level with the characters. Instead, the camera frames them from a high angle, so we're looking down on them. Why? It was annoying.

This is not something an audience might consciously notice, yet it would feel sloppy to them; whereas judicious framing might have achieved a psychological effect in the audience that would have supported the scene's emotional content, or the film's overall theme.

(For more info, read the section on framing in Film Art: An Introduction. It's my favorite book on film aesthetics. But if it's too pricey, try The Cinema as Art, another worthwhile read.)

Still, The 3rd Floor is not without merit. While some of its actors appear self-conscious (as though they're reading lines), others appear more natural. Especially noteworthy is Steve Hudgins in the role of Buck (the brother). Hudgins plays his role with the polished ease of a trained professional.

And a quick visit to The 3rd Floor website confirms that Steve Hudgins is indeed a trained actor -- as well as writer and co-director of this film. Hudgins should have tried harder to cast his film with thesps nearer his own acting skill level.

I also liked Bradley and Jill (Leif Erickson Rigney and Audra Hall), an eccentric "artsy fartsy" couple who live down the hall. (The sort of people who would know what I mean by "unmotivated framing.") They provide the comic relief in this film. Their lines are artificial and artificially played (I can't accept them are real people), yet they do provide entertainment value. (Oh hell, they're a delight to watch!)

And The 3rd Floor does entertain despite its flaws. Bradley and Jill are parody figures, yet the film overall aims higher, striving for ghostly atmosphere and genuine scares. That's a lot tougher to achieve than cheap laughs drawn from parody (the favorite genre of inept filmmakers; if you can't do it right, do it for laughs).

Credit The 3rd Floor for its ambition. The lighting and sound might have been better, yet this film does not appear to be yet another low-budget, amateur film, shoddily and impatiently tossed together by people with an inflated sense of their own skills. I sense a sincere effort and love of craft behind The 3rd Floor, and for that it earns my respect.

I enjoyed this film, yet how typical am I? Today, even "quiet" supernatural horror films feature expensive special effects (e.g., Gothika, The Grudge, The Ring), whereas The 3rd Floor's "special" effects consist of smoke, and elevator doors opening into darkness (an effect that seems created by black blankets or cardboard taped over something; at least that's how it looked to me).

Selecting films for a screening is a balance between the judges' tastes (what they think an audience should like), and audience taste (what audiences do like). If the Tabloid Witch had a trophy for Best Amateur Effort, The 3rd Floor might have won. But would most people in a modern horror audience sit through this film? Or is it for specialized tastes only? For the hardcore horror fan/completist, for those determined to watch everything in the genre (and for some reason, enjoy almost all of it)?

Well, The 3rd Floor is not a masterpiece, but I enjoyed it. If you don't require slick special effects or production values, and if you're interested in the work of indie horror filmmakers working outside of New York and Los Angeles, even if their production values are a little rough, you may want to ride an elevator up to The 3rd Floor.

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