Room 203, a tightly woven adaptation of a J-Horror novel by Nanami Kamon, begins innocuously with a young guy doing plaster repairs in an apartment for rent. What he finds inside of a hole in the wall – jokingly called a “glory hole” by his boss – is the setup for a slow burn thriller that could have been a twisted student film by a young Alfred Hitchcock. But Room 203 was actually directed by Ben Jagger, known for The Paddy Lincoln Gang and Corbin Nash, the latter of which centered on a murdered cop who returns from the grave as the ultimate killer.
It’s pretty clear that Jagger sought to inject something for every part of horror fandom and it works fairly well. After a prologue that involves suspense and self-mutilation, we meet the main protagonists – Kim White (Francesca Xuereb), a college student studying journalism, and Izzy Davis (Viktoria Vinyarska), a struggling actor rebounding from a tragic loss.
The pair decide to become roommates and move into the same recently renovated apartment, which features some fine vintage touches, including a three-panel stained-glass window. What the girls don’t realize is that those vintage features infer a history of violence and terror.
Soon after the pair settle in, Izzy finds the same hole from the beginning of the film. She places her hand inside the hole, finding a weathered necklace that has everything to do with the series of terrifying events that follow.
Kim starts school and meets her soon-to-be boyfriend Ian (Eric Wiegand) after waking up late and missing orientation. They hit it off immediately as they’re both journalism majors.
Tension builds as sufficiently creepy events begin to happen, starting with Kim seeing a mysterious bird crawling into the previously mentioned hole in the wall… then loud banging… then nightmarish visions of blood.
Solid acting by Francesca Xuereb and Viktoria Vinyarska as roommates Kim & Izzy, along with Eric Wiegand as Ian, elevate Room 203 above similar fare. Scott Gremillion as the bizarre landlord Ronan (mostly because of his creepy stares), foreshadows the climax but in unexpected ways. Kim and Izzy’s characterizations build naturally, as Kim deals with parents who refuse to take her calls because of their disapproval of Izzy. And Izzy herself, who’s dealing with a tragic loss and possible addiction issues.
Room 203 also has a surprisingly strong musical score by Daniel L.K. Caldwell and genuinely scary sound effects & mixing by Jeff K. Brunello and Jacob Miller. This should keep audiences tuned in, as Kim enlists Ian to help her learn more about her apartment’s history and support her roommate Izzy, who’s suffering from a series of increasingly dark and violent sleepwalking episodes that Izzy has no memory of.
Joel Froome’s cinematography is effective throughout, especially in outdoor settings, which allows for broader color pallets than the seemingly intentional muted, dark tones of the girls’ apartment building and it’s basement (one of the places Izzy is discovered by Kim after a sleepwalking episode).
The believable emotional struggle between Kim and Izzy, and Ian’s dedication to uncovering the mysteries surrounding the apartment, heighten the suspense level through the film’s climax. It’s at that point the film becomes much more violent and may shock some viewers more captivated by the dramatic setup.
But horror fans shouldn’t be disappointed by the realistic make-up effects by Crystal Fudge & Lisa O’Neal, along with J.C. Doler’s visual effects.
Shot in Shreveport, Louisiana, Room 203 is worth a look when it debuts in select cities this Friday, including New York City (The Kent Theater), Chicago (Emagine Chatham), Ft. Worth and Dallas (American Cinemas). The same day it will be available on all major VOD platforms.