The Disappointments Room Review (Film, 2016)
An architect and her family move out to the country to start their lives over. Their new home, a beautiful mansion needing a lot of repairs, comes complete with a secret room. This room does not appear on the floor plans and is hidden behind a large wardrobe and a locked door. Whatever is in the house does not need a key to get out and preys on the anxiety of a mother grieving the loss of a young child.
The Disappointments Room is one of those based-on-a-true-story haunted house films. Much of the premise of the film is based in fact and history. The titular disappointments room isn't always referred to as that (this film is the first time I've heard that particular term), but it is something that happened historically.
Essentially, these rooms existed to isolate undesirable (sick or disabled children or adults) from society. Wealthy families, rather than ship them off to asylums, would place these people in locked rooms and see to their care in secrecy until they died. This particular story is inspired by a couple who bought a home and discovered one such secret room, though the film adds a Victorian Gothic flair and all the cliches that come with them. The film even nods to this with the father watching a filmed adaptation of Jane Eyre, specifically the scene where Mr. Rochester reveals the secret of the madwoman in the attic.
It's not that The Disappointments Room is a bad film; it's unambitious. All the tropes are there to make a classic Gothic haunted house film in the truest sense. Aside from the secret room, there's a hidden graveyard in the back, menacing animals in shades of black and grey stalking the manor, strangely placed mirrors, crumbling walls, and whispers from the attic. Director D.J. Caruso is all too happy to leave this abundant wealth of tried and true scares on the back burner for made-for-TV-movie melodrama. It's a case of trying to be more than a horror film while still keeping all the scares. You don't get to pretend to elevate the material when you literally have a bat jump scare in a darkened attic.
The melodrama is well acted but utterly unnecessary for the story. Kate Beckinsale stars as the mother trying to pull her life back together in a new home. Her physicality and emotive face goes a long way in elevating a poorly planned film. I can handle Gothic cliches in a haunted house film (they are the basis of the modern haunted house story in the West), but I really struggle with poorly defined stories of mental illness, anxiety, hallucination, and disassociation. Beckinsale gives a lovely, nuanced performance considering how ill-defined the character's background is beyond losing a child and needing medication.
The Disappointments Room is a film obsessed with detail until it is not. We find out the exact date of death of the girl who used to live in the room, but not a single thing about the mother's actual diagnosis. There's are two lengthy discussions with a building contractor about how to best repair a leak in the ceiling, but nothing more than random pill bottles popping up to suggest the mother has gone off her medicine.
The mother's architectural work is lovingly framed in ever possible scene, but the father's role beyond selling a business in the city and playing with the surviving child is never defined. The architecture of the house is shockingly clear and consistent for a haunted house film (you get leeway with reality on those by the standards of the genre), but a later scene in the film features a phone call indicating that friends visiting from New York City for a dinner party are crossing the border into North Carolina; they leave a few hours later, presumably to drive the eight to 10 hours it takes (without traffic) to get back to NYC from their one day excursion. This kind of inconsistency and misplaced focus makes the relatively short horror film a chore to sit through at times.
I have to give credit where credit is due. This is one of the most beautifully detailed haunted house films I've seen in years. There is a level of decay to the house--peeling paint, splintered wood, overgrown gardens, tarnished doorknobs and skeleton keys--that grounds the film in reality. The level of work that went into production design is really impressive. It, frankly, makes the inconsistent and unfocused narrative feel like more of a waste. The design is a beautiful frame to an unambitious painting that the creator presents as much more significant than it is.
There are far worse haunted house films than The Disappointments Room. Some of the scares are quite good. The setting is strong and, mercifully, it's one of the rare modern horror films that isn't afraid to light the scene so everything can be seen. It's a shame that the creative team didn't lean into the horror elements.
I keep thinking back to the Jane Eyre nod and feel let down. Jane Eyre has a lot of exposition, character development, romantic storylines, and subplots about character, status, and wellness. The novel also does not hold back when it comes to the chain rattling and howling wolf-styled terror of the Gothic novel. The Disappointments Room has all the pieces to be a modern haunted house spin on that beautiful Bronte style and instead places its focus in all the wrong places.
The Disappointments Room is currently streaming on Netflix.
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