Room 205 – DVD Review

The Denmark-lensed Room 205is one of the more interesting entries in the initial wave of low budget, independent horror films from Ghost House Underground, a direct-to-video arm of Sam Raimi and Bob Tapert’s Ghost House Pictures. While the parent company has been enjoying a string of solid office hits thanks to J-horror remakes (The Grudge) and the clever positioning of poached Asian talent like the Pang Brothers in familiar, if somewhat dull product (The Messengers), Room 205 is a quiet, atmospheric ghost story that – mostly – eschews the trendier genre trappings of modern horror in favor of a measured, quiet tone that rewards an audience’s patience with some genuinely unsettling moments.

Student Katrine (Neel Ronholt) is having a rocky start to her term at an un-named Copenhagen university. While still grieving the death of her mother, she finds herself fighting for acceptance from the bitchy Sanne (Julie Olgaard) and pining for hunky Lukas (Jon Lange). But just as things begin to look up, Katrine’s sanity is threatened by macabre visions in her dorm – could the ghost of a girl who died in Sanne’s room be haunting her? It’s only when bodies start piling up that Katrine enlists the help of the quiet, sensitive Rolf (Mikkel Arendt) to help her find a way to send the rampaging poltergeist back where it came from.

The DVD box does Room 205 (or Kollegiet, in its native tongue) no favors by splashing “A fast-paced supernatural teen slasher” across the cover. While it may encourage a second video-store glance from the easily amused, it advertises a gory thrill-ride that is, thankfully, not delivered. Katrine is already haunted by the death of her mother, and her sensitive nature and wounded heart makes her a prime target for the animosity of Sanne, who turns the entire dorm against Katrine when she fails to react “properly” to a particularly cruel joke at a party. Moments like these allow Director Martin Barnewitz to focus on the more mundane horrors of dorm life early on while sprinkling in several ominous visual and aural hints to let us know that something more supernatural is coming.

Most people haven’t lived in a haunted Copenhagen dorm room, but it’s a safe bet that most of the audience for low-budget horror remembers what it’s like to be unpopular, and Barnewitz and star Ronholt make you feel every inch of Katerine’s isolation. Without giving away a rather grim development late in the film, the evil spirit in question is “trapped” within the mirrors of the dormitory, and the accidental shattering of one releases her into our world. Barnewitz has fun photographing the hazy reflection of Katerine in various objects (from a hallway security mirror to the hood of a car) and generates a nice sense of foreboding.

Fittingly, Room 205’s visual style owes much to the European tradition; from Polanski’s nerve-tingling distortions in Repulsionto the grainy, avant-garde “realism” of Barnewitz’s fellow countrymen in the Dogme 95 movement. The visual style combined with the measured pace gives the film an austerity that runs against the grain of most modern horror films, the vast majority of Ghost House Underground’s cannon in particular – judging at least from the trailers included on the disc.

While the second half contains a few genuinely unnerving moments – particularly Katerine’s return to a mysteriously deserted party and a well played bit involving a set of closing elevator doors – it also acquiesces to the gore hound crowd with a few decidedly out-of-place bursts of violence that run against the grain of the restraint in the show’s first half. We sense that it was the likely the realities of the global film market rather than artistic expression that necessitated their inclusion. And in an inferior film it wouldn’t seem so out of place to have college students behave more like petulant tweenies – a bad fit for a supporting cast that looks a good 10 years too old to be living in a dorm. It’s also worth noting that many may feel the pacing to be slack, particularly in the first half (I don’t know if European pacing is a term in common usage, but as it’s a European film, it would seem to be appropriate); however, director Barnewitz uses the time wisely, allowing his characters to breathe and develop a screen-life of their own.

But it’s Neel Ronholt’s performance that really boosts this film far above its peer group. Miss Ronholt, an instantly endearing screen presence resembling a combination of Misty Mundae and Lynn Lowry, appears in nearly every scene and effectively carries the film on her shoulders. She possesses an amazingly demure sexuality while also expressing genuine intelligence and is definitely a name to watch for.

Room 205 appears on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate, along with the rest of the Ghost House Underground collection. It appears to be an accurate reproduction of the original photography, in an enhanced 2:35×1 transfer. You’ll also have the choice to watch the film with its original Danish language (with English subtitles) soundtrack or an English dub. We sampled the dub track but found it too distracting, particularly during the more dialog-driven first half (Rolf’s voice in particular sounds very Troy McClure-ish, while the women have that shrill quality present in many giallo dubs of the 70s). Ghost House has included a commentary track featuring director Martin Barnewitz and Cinefantastique’s own Steve Biodrowski. It makes for a pleasant, relaxed chat; Barnewitz’s English is fluent, and seems genuinely humbled by Biodrowski’s allusions to major horror pictures past. Also present are trailers for a good sized chunk of Ghost House Underground’s slate, showcasing several (the title of Last House in the Woods alone seems to violate about a dozen copyrights) that made us appreciate how special Room 205 is.

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