Room 205 – DVD Review

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Click to Purchase

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.
The ghost manifests in a mirror.
The ghost manifests in a mirror.

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.
Blood flows in the films second half - a concession to gorehounds.
Blood flows in the film's second half - a concession to gorehounds.

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.
Neel Ronholt as Katrine
Neel Ronholt as Katrine

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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Sense of Wonder: Commenting on Room 205's Commentary

A while back I mentioned that I was providing an audio commentary for the U.S. DVD release of ROOM 2O5, the Danish horror film I enjoyed at Screamfest 2007. Well, the disc is out, but of course I haven’t reviewed it because my objectivity is seriously compromised. While contemplating other writers to whom the job could be offered (ideally, someone independent of CFQ, who would not be afraid to say an unkind word), I came upon Brian Collins’ mixed but largely negative review at Horror Movie a Day. Collins is entitled to his opinion of the film, but I must object to his misleading characterization of the audio commentary:

The DVD has a commentary (in which director Martin Barnewitz also claims it’s a slasher movie) and a making of, neither are essential but props to devoting a lengthy section of the making of to the sound design, which is one of the movie’s strong points. The commentary also has a film critic along for the ride, and it’s kind of ironic that they spend so much time dissecting (and dismissing) slasher movies that are far superior to this one, and talking about what makes an effective horror movie, when Barnewitz failed to do so. Oh well, at least one of them points out that the back story is the same as (the superior) Shutter, so I don’t have to.

This gives the impression that Barnewitz and I spent the entire commentary talking about how bad slasher movies are and how good ROOM 205 is. In truth, I was the one doing the dissecting and dismissing, not Martin Barnewitz, and my focus was not on slahser films but on distinguishing between the Barnewitz’s European approach and that of low-budget American horror movies, which tend to get the body count started as soon as possible.
Barnewitz’s film, on the other hand, is working in a tradition with roots in films like ROSEMARY’S BABY (an American production but scripted and directed by Polish auteur Roman Polanski), which unfold their story gradually, building suspense before the horror emerges. In the commentary, I note that this is a gambit that can pay off in the long run, if the audience has the patience to wait out the slow, early passages; Barnewitz counters by saying that he probably should have inserted a few more scares up front.
In other words, far from being ignorantly oblivious to the slow pace (one of Collins chief objections to the film), we were actively discussing it, and the filmmaker himself considered it a problem that he regreted. Collins should give us credit for this instead of painting us as totally clueless.
One other point: Collins derides us for spending too much time “talking about what makes an effective horror movie, when Barnewitz failed to do so.” Yet here is Collins own assessment of the film:

[…] it’s not awful; it’s competently made and the actors are good. And once it finally gets going, it’s kind of exciting, and the deaths are surprisingly cool when they actually occur. To be fair, the slow pace would actually be a benefit if the story was a bit more original or interesting, so it’s nice to see that they are at least TRYING to develop character rather than just present you with wall to wall kills like a latter day F13 movie. Also, I’m pretty sure that this is the first teen horror movie in which our Final Girl snorts cocaine, so at least they aren’t slaves to the “rules”.

Despite his overall disappointment, Collins finds some words of praise for ROOM 205. Why, then, does he find it “ironic” that the audio commentary addresses those merits? I suspect the problem here is that Collins (based on a misleading quote on the box cover) was expecting a fast-paced slasher movie. When he saw, instead, a deliberately paced ghost story, his thwarted expectations perhaps bled over into his assesment of the film and the audio commentary.
I hope I’m not being overly sensitive. I just don’t want someone reading the review to get an inaccurate impression of the audio commentary, so I am trying to set the record straight.
UPDATE: Links have been added, and text has been edited and expanded for clarity.
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Sense of Wonder: Room 205 commentary by yours truly

Room 205 (a.k.a. KOLLEGIET [The College], 2007) 

A sense of decorum had engulfed me in a metaphorical Cone of Silence, preventing any unseemly self-promotion, but now it looks like the cat is out of the proverbial bag. A news item at Fangoria.com lists the details of eight upcoming DVDs that Lionsgate will be releasing on October 14 under their Ghost House Underground banner, including:

ROOM 205:

  • Audio commentary by director Martin Barnewitz and film critic Steve Biodrowski
  • Behind-the-scenes featurette

That’s right: after years of raging against “Access Journalism” (in which journalists lose objectivity by getting too cosy with their subjects), I am participating in an endeavor which will taint anything I write about the Danish horror film ROOM 205. Feel free to call me a hypocrite when you read my positive reaction to the film  (which I saw at Screamfest last year) and my interview with Barnewitz.
All joking aside, both the review and the interview were completed months before the subject of the audio commentary came up; the fact that I responded favorably led to my being asked to do the commentary, not the other way around. Consider this revelation as simply a “Full Disclosure,” to be taken into consideration when evaluating my coverage of the film.
Read details on the other DVDs below the fold. Read More

Danish Director Martin Barnewitz Enters "Room 205"

 

Perhaps the era of the sleeper hit horror movie is over in the U.S. Once upon a time, movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE could come out of nowhere; foreign films like BLACK SUNDAY and SUSPRIA could pack American audiences into drive-ins and grind houses, while their more upscale brethren like ONIBABA and KWAIDAN could find audiences in the art theatres. Today, a low-budget, foreign-language horror film – no matter how good – is lucky to get a DVD release in the U.S. With little hope of selling tickets stateside, the film becomes not an end in itself but a means to an end, a calling card that can, hopefully, lead to a more lucrative gig.
This is more or less what happened with ROOM 205 (a.k.a. Kollegiet [“The College”]), an effective supernatural thriller from Denmark that impressed audiences at last year’s Screamfest Film Festival in Hollywood. Ghost House Underground, a joint venture between Ghost House Pictures (known for J-Horror remakes like THE GRUDGE) and Grindstone Entertainment Group (one of the country’s bigger direct-to-video companies), picked up the U.S. rights, including a potential American remake; by passing theatres, the film will come out on DVD later this year. Meanwhile, director Martin Barnewitz has landed a deal with Ghost House Pictures to direct THE MESSENGERS 2, a direct-to-video sequel to the 2007 film directed by the Pang Brothers (THE EYE).
ROOM 205 follows Katrine (Neel Ronholt), a young woman from a small town who moves into a dormitory when she goes to a University in the big city. She tries to fit in with her new neighbors, but her situation quickly sours into alienation. Complications take the form of a ghost, which manifests in a bathroom mirror and seems to act on Katrine’s behalf, taking revenge against those who have wronged her. Although the film ultimately comes down squarely in favor of a supernatural explanation, much of it plays like a modern homage to Roman Polanski thrillers like REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and THE TENANT, which focused on characters who were paranoid, isolated, and/or alienated from their neighbors.
Cinefantastique Online sat down for a chat with Barnewitz when he was in the U.S. for Screamfest, before the deals for releasing ROOM 205 and directing MESSENGERS 2 had been finalized. Read More