Short Review: “The Room at the Top of the Stairs” a 70’s Tour De Force

The press materials for Briony Kidd‘s acclaimed Tasmanian short, The Room at the Top of the Stairs, cite ’70s horror films and Daphne du Maurier‘s gothic mystery, Rebecca, as its inspirations. From the opening shots of star Fiannah de Rue walking up to the house, accompanied by Heath Brown‘s melancholy score, those citations are not overconfident.

There’s something of a remove for horror films from Australia and New Zealand. It’s as if their separation from the rest of the planet has allowed them to develop a film language which is definitive and unique. Films from that region are like American and British films seen distantly through a hazy lens, and it lends them such a unique feel, that they feel like they were made in another language.

Kidd‘s movie is no different. It’s suffused with a light and framed in such a way that suggests deep familiarity with what’s come before, but an independent desire to do one’s own thing. The Room at the Top of the Stairs will delight fans of ’70s Gothic cinema such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel, wherein the dwelling is just as much a character as the people who live within it. Is the room and the house what leads to Girl’s change, or did she come there with it already inside her?

The film is about a young artist, who moves into a house, wherein she moves into the titular space and is overshadowed by the girl — Carmen — who lived there before her. Her new roommates tell stories about Carmen to de Rue’s character, and it seems that what she’s envisioned as a chance to become something isn’t going to happen. She’s dismissed almost from the get-go.

As the film progresses, Kidd‘s vision becomes more and more macabre, and de Rue begins to degenerate, it’s joined by a degeneration of Brown‘s score, which turns from piano to synthesizer, and the disorientation is heard, as well as seen. It’s an interesting transformation. De Rue‘s character is an absolute blank slate. Her name is never given, and she’s credited only as “Girl.” However, in the course of The Room at the Top of the Stairs, Girl turns from a mousy unknown into something … more.

The Room at the Top of the Stairs flies by, and when it’s ended, the viewer finds themselves wanting to see what happens next. Kidd has really hewed strongly to the adage of leaving them wanting more, but it’s rather perfect. Fleshing out the story with further explanation or pushing it into a wider range would ruin the rather claustrophobic feel which the writer/director ably cultivated.

For those wanting more from Briony Kidd, her latest short, Watch Me, is on the festival circuit and her next project is a feature film with producer Catherine Pettman, described as “a post-apocalyptic psycho-biddy thriller.”