Any semi-regular reader of my blog will be unsurprised by my title, which is, as usual, adequately cheesy. (I just love an obnoxious title). But there is at least a scintilla of truth to the title, if you’re at all inclined to relish in life’s darker corners. Yes, The Disappointments Room is sufficiently scary, and not exactly what I expected it to be. But it is dark. If you’re looking for a classic haunted house story, you’ll probably like the film. But if you’re looking to be disturbed and depressed (because that’s everyone’s goal, right?) then you should definitely see it. I was in a delightful mood when I entered the theater. After the film was over, I wasn’t quite certain how I felt; I was lingering in an uncomfortable emotional limbo for a bit. To be sure, life seemed a little darker and more contingent. But, perhaps that’s the marker of an effective film; it changed my mood. And the darkness wore off, leaving me with the memory of a genuinely jarring cinematic experience (as in, I was rigid with discomfort throughout most of the movie). The Disappointments Room, then, is well worth the time investment. It borrows from genre elements without falling into the “tiresomely cliché” trap.
Dana and Teddy (Kate Beckinsale and Michael Landes) move from the sprawling city to an enormous and secluded country home in a small town with their young son, Lucas (Duncan Joiner). Does the trope sound familiar? It should. A sizeable portion of horror movies begin with a geographical transition, usually because the apparitions or demons need a reason to start appearing or are tied to a particular place (Sinister, The Conjuring, Poltregeist, The Shining, etc.). Often times (but not always), these geographical transitions are provoked by a calamitous, or at least troubling event that rocked the family, and the move is a “new beginning,” an attempt to move beyond the tragedy or problematic occurrence (the move to the Overlook in The Shining is an apt example of this). Such is the case with Dana and Teddy, who lost their three-month old daughter. The loss of their daughter is revealed relatively early in the film, though the cause of her loss isn’t explained until the conclusion. Of course, that’s another component of the “new beginnings” trope; the family’s backstory, the events that led to the geographical change, are usually revealed incrementally throughout the film.
Dana, the grieving mother, is the one who discovers a small, strange room in the family’s new home, and the discovery of the room – and its possible past – occurs alongside frequent insinuations of Dana’s psychological instability (because of the tragedy she’s experienced). An event will shock Dana in the film, and she’ll instinctively reach for a bottle of prescribed pills, then set it down and walk away. At one point, she flushes a pill bottle’s contents down the toilet, and her husband often (and sometimes patronizingly) asks if she’s been taking her meds when she questions the house’s safety. To be sure, he’s not really hearing her concerns. (Note: I will not completely reveal the ending in the rest of the review, but there are some spoilers).
I personally did not question Dana’s grip on reality. I felt she was being unfairly labeled as a “madwoman” by her husband when she seemed intelligent and tenacious, as his way of invalidating her claims and ignoring phenomena (like strange time lapses and ghostly appearances) that couldn’t be understood rationally. (Dana is, by the way, the former owner of an architectural firm and the member of the couple charged with renovating the house. All signs point to a strong, smart, female.) In fact, one portion of the film seems to lend proof to Dana’s occasional ghostly visions. Dana finds out the hidden room is a “disappointments room” by consulting an old archivist, who explains the nature of a disappointments room to Dana. In earlier times, children with deformities and disabilities were often an embarrassment to their families. As such, these children were denied the light of day and isolated in tiny rooms, hidden from the rest of society. If you’re into 19th century literature, an image of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife and so-called madwoman in the novel Jane Eyre might come to mind, although Bertha is an adult. When Bertha goes insane, Rochester locks her in a secluded attic room and hides her existence from the world. According to the research I did for my Master’s thesis, locking mad loved ones in a secluded room was considered normal and appropriate in Victorian England. In other words, we’re making progress.
While we’re on the topic of 19th century literature, another text I wrote about for my Master’s thesis was Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which patriarchal husband Jon forces deferential, emotionally disturbed Jane to move to a secluded country manor with him after post-pregnancy malaise that may or may not have been post-partum depression. This story was flashing in my mind’s forefront when, after experiencing horrendous visions and ghostly sightings, Dana begs Teddy to move out of the house (just like Jane wants to leave the country house in the story), which she thinks is haunted and dangerous. She also mentions that she misses the luxuries of city life. But Teddy insists that the family stay in the country house for at least a year, arguing that Lucas needs stability. We might infer, too, that he thinks staying in the country house would be best for Dana. At one point in the film, he sneaks off to the city to consult the family psychiatrist about Dana’s behavior, which he considers erratic.
So as a woman interested in horror, feminism, and accurate portrayals of mental illness, I’m clearly on Dana’s side throughout most of the film. There is something obviously wrong with the house, and Teddy belittles Dana’s opinion by blaming her psychiatric problems for her assertions. But when Teddy has a couple of friends over on the one-year anniversary of their daughter’s death, Dana gets into a drunken rage, smashes every dish in sight, and insists that everyone sing happy birthday to her dead daughter, for whom she’s purchased a brightly frosted birthday cake. This behavior starkly contrasts from the behavior Dana’s been exhibiting throughout the film and makes the viewer wonder, is there really a problem here? Another instance in the film, which I won’t relate, further causes the viewer to question Dana’s grip on reality. After all, extreme depression is often linked to hallucinations and psychosis. Thus, by the middle-end of the film, I found myself wondering: Could Dana have imagined everything?
And that’s where another classic horror trope enters the picture. I’ve written about this trope on a piece about the 1960’s black and white film, The Innocents, based off Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” As is the case with The Innocents, one never really knows, in The Disappointments Room, if the things Dana sees are a result of ghostly presences or the creations of her own mind. Does the ghost of a deformed girl and her insidious parents haunt the country mansion, or is Dana piecing this story together based on her visit with the archivist and other random paraphernalia (like old pictures of the house’s first owners that are painted on wall panels that Dana discovers behind two oddly placed mirrors)? One could break down the film’s components and provide analysis supporting the presence of ghosts or the presence of severe psychological distress. Significantly, in this film, the two options aren’t mutually exclusive: could not the presence of the supernatural be driving Dana insane, or, for that matter, could it be preying on already existent psychiatric unrest? In that way, the film is a lot like Kubrick’s The Shining in which Jack, a vulnerable alcoholic, is presumably bait for a malicious and ghost-infested hotel that works through him with vengeance. And The Disappointments Room does have some nods to The Shining: the presence of a simultaneously sweet and creepy ghost-girl in a nice dress, a little boy (Lucas) who looks a lot like Danny (though Lucas has more personality), and shots of Lucas playing with his toys that are similar to scenes in which Danny plays in The Shining.
Problematically, as usual, the potential madwoman is just that –a woman – although this is less problematic if we assume the ghosts are real and Dana’s husband just won’t believe her. (And, as I’ve just admitted, the classic horror cannon does boast at least one madman in the guise of The Shining’s Jack Torrance, so we women aren’t always bait for inept psychotic depictions). What was incredibly promising about this film is its portrayal of mental illness. When Dana gets drunk in front of company and smashes plates, she lists her grievances with sass and intelligence, despite her intoxication. The film acknowledges that given what Dana’s gone through and what she’s going through, she has every reason to be “breaking.” Dana is not some mumbling, animalistic lunatic (again, see Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, who is described as a veritable monstrosity and complete Burden to Rochester). Dana’s strength, intellect, and assertiveness radiate throughout the film, making her an admirable female character who may happen to have a legitimate psychiatric condition. As supported by one of my first blog posts on The Visit, flattering (or simply accurate) depictions of mental illness still aren’t a given, or even a normative presence, in contemporary cinema. To that end, The Disappointments Room was refreshing.
I still haven’t told you some of the elements of the film that I found most disturbing. And I won’t. I’ve provided a pretty detailed synopsis of the movie, but the most troubling details have yet to be revealed. I really appreciated this film, because – to my knowledge, at least – it received so little of the typical and often misleading exaggerated movie hype, but it was actually a really well-made film with plenty of potential for analysis. If you’re interested in the often murky distinction between reality or illusion, or if you’re simply a fan of a good ghost flick, this one will be right up your ally.