Sometimes, a horror film just tries too hard. Functioning under the mistaken belief that, via their premise, they are onto something really scary, these desperate offerings will pile on the pointless atmosphere and deliver the very demons of the underworld, all in an attempt to keep audiences on the edge of their seat. In very rare instances, this strategy works. But more times than not, the result is something akin to the undeniably dull screamfest Room 6. As motion picture macabre goes, this Jacob’s Ladder lift is just a slight notch above bad. But you can see within its hospital as purgatory and patient-eating nurses conceits a real belief in its fear factors.
It’s a feeling that extends to the bonus material provided in the new DVD version of the film from Anchor Bay. As part of the audio commentary included on the disc, producer/co-writer Mark Altman and co-writer/director Mike Hurst view their efforts as a clever combination of spiritual uplift and uncompromising dread. In their story of Amy (Christine Taylor), a young schoolteacher whose fiancée disappears after a bizarre car accident, they see a wonderful opportunity to explore elements both personal and paranormal. Both believe it to be an allegory for the internal process we all go through when facing the biggest of life or death dilemmas. They also marvel at how moody and menacing it all is.
Truth be told, Amy’s journey is more mundane. As essayed by the pretty but passive Taylor (Mrs. Ben Stiller, for those who don’t know), our disconnected educator seems awash in pointless, coincidentally convenient backstory. She has an unnatural fear of hospitals, owing to “something terrible” that happened to her father when she was 12. Naturally, after the freakish fender bender, her bland beau is dragged off to the infirmary of the Damned! She is also having difficulty relating to a young trailer trash student who sees visions of monsters. Of course, this little girl holds an important, otherworldly key to uncovering her boyfriend’s whereabouts.
But perhaps even more flagrantly foreshadowing is her happenstance meeting with Lucas, a well meaning but slightly pushy mystery man. Supposedly behind the wheel of the car that caused the wreck, he too is looking for a lost loved one, a sister. Yet from the moment we see actor Jerry O’Connell eyeing Taylor like a juicy turkey leg on Thanksgiving, you just know his sob story is bullshit. It is here, amongst all the visions of Hell (in the occasionally effective persona of half-glimpsed creatures with disgusting black bile pouring from their faces) and metaphysical mumbo jumbo that the movie finds its promise, and all its problems.
Since the genre of horror has become the most self-referential style in all of cinema (with the crime thriller coming in a close second), it’s no surprise, then, that Room 6 borrows so heavily from the past. Even in the casting—from Jason Voorhees’ stunt stand-in Kane Hodder as a homeless hulk, to Halloween 4/5’s victim Ellie Cornell—we find callbacks to creature features past. But instead of making the scary movie shout outs work together to form a cohesive concept, what we end up with is a pastiche of ideas awash with inconsistencies.
From nods to Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance (Amy’s lover is taken away by some mystery paramedics) to Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom (which, frankly, had the far more freakish ER setting) Altman and Hurst use the entire medical backdrop as a way of tapping into some universal fear of doctors and science. They even lift a sequence from a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In one of the suspense master’s most memorable TV efforts, Joseph Cotton was paralyzed after a car accident, and everyone thinks he’s dead. He must get the attention of someone, somehow, before he is taken to the morgue, and buried alive.
In Room 6, the filmmakers utilize this concept not once, but twice. The first time it’s familiar, and almost fiendishly fun. The second time around, however, it’s part of a incongruent finale which finds time being bent so that Amy can play heroine after she faces her doctor demons. The denouement over why she’s so horrified of hospitals is obvious—the screenplay is constantly hinting about the terminal father and the ‘responsibility’ for what happened to him—and doesn’t make the mystery of the haunted hospice any more meaningful. In fact, if we are to take the ending at face value, it’s all but a figment, a fleeting glimpse, of middling moral culpability.
Since we never really care about Amy, either as a character or as a catalyst for the plot (Ms. Taylor tries, but merely ends up deafening us with her endless shrieking), the quest for her boyfriend, as well as some personal closure, is clunky and uninvolving. Even worse, O’Connell is so arched eyebrow transparent, using glaringly geniality to mask his decidedly darker side, that we dismiss him almost from the moment he appears. Without a connection to either lead, Room 6 is forced to rely on mood, production design, and the recognizability of riffs from fright flicks past. Sadly, not even the sight of blood drinking lesbian nurses, naked and being very naughty with the red stuff, can pump up our interest level.
It’s a common mistake made amongst post-modern horror hounds. Instead of relying on something new or novel to instill the necessary doom and gloom, they glom onto whatever worked a decade or two before and consider it nothing more than a well-meaning homage. In turn, this merely makes us yearn to revisit the original. For it’s time, Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder was a well-meaning mindfuck that tried to take the perfunctory piss out of the ‘80s slasher aesthetic by going Gothic. It wanted to offer a troubling tale of one man’s battle with his own scattered soul. Room 6 is definitely digging into the same psychological territory. But it can’t move beyond the superficial to establish its mental morass.
In the end, this is a film that feels like a colossal waste of time, the very definition of the Shakespearean slogan ‘much ado about nothing’. While the commentary and production featurette can attempt to fool viewers into thinking there is more here than a direct to DVD quickie, the fact of the macabre matter is plainly evident. While Altman and Hurst deserve a smattering of respect for not going down the vampire/serial killer route (though, sadly, zombies make an appearance here) Room 6 is the kind of movie that gives the horror genre a black eye. And no amount of medical care can cure its uninspired ills.