After the tragic death of their infant daughter, Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido) along with their young son, Lucas (Duncan Joiner) move from the city to a rustic mansion within a rural southern town. David hopes it will help Dana recover from the loss of their daughter by putting her architectural skills to use on the dilapidated estate. However, after the first night in the mansion, Dana starts to have flashbacks of the day her daughter died and visions of the mansion’s previous owners propelling Dana to the brink of insanity.
The Disappointments Room is Wentworth Miller’s second foray into screenwriting, and D.J. Caruso is no stranger to thrillers with films like Disturbia. However, this joint artistic endeavour into horror – which tries to capture the essence of films like the Babadook, The Shining, Poltergeist, and The Amityville Horror – sadly could not live up to its own expectations. Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare it to classics, but the film does not shy away from making allusions to them, and in the end it doesn’t offer up anything new or memorable.
Important: This review features some spoilers to the plot.
The film’s R rating promises a house of unspeakable horrors, but what it offers instead is literally a “disappointing room.” We see Dana fussing with the blueprints that show the detailed scale of their new home, but it is never actually fully realized on screen. Yes, this house is supposed to be an important character metaphorically, but sadly the setting’s grandness seems to recede into the background, and all the audience is left with is a spiral staircase and the small room of to which the film’s title speaks of. As Dana comes to find out, the room was used as a private living space for Laura, the disfigured daughter of the previous owners and the source of the haunting. The lit-up room from the exterior looks like an ominous eye – an aspect that the filmmakers wants us to think, but the effect is underwhelming.
“He doesn’t want you here,” is all we ever hear from the ghostly apparition of Laura, who Dana sees throughout the film. We never get a solid idea of why the ghost of Laura’s father, Judge Blacker, is also haunting Dana and her son – at least not one that is satisfying. The movie misses an opportunity to connect the ghosts to their humanity or motivation, simply relying on the unpredictability of the paranormal with no profound consequences to the film’s plot.
Many of the film’s jump scares have nothing to do with actual paranormal events, just the usual cheap tricks that illicit a brief heart attack. To give an example, bushes behind Dana rustled violently, because the audience needs to be reminded it’s a scary movie. When the ghosts actually do appear and begin to haunt Dana, there is no actual thrill in seeing them. The reveal of Laura’s facial disfiguration isn’t surprising and Judge Blacker might as well be as indistinct as the house. In an attempt to pay homage to The Shining, Lucas does have a moment with Laura that is reminiscent of the twins in the hallway scene, but it is undeserved and leads to nothing, as Lucas does not seem disturbed by his encounter afterwards.
There is one brilliant moment at the climax where I thought that the movie had finally gotten some teeth, as it is a brutal and devastating scene, but instead the viewer is yanked back to “reality” when it is again revealed to be another dream sequence – an element that the film becomes too reliant on, and therefore reduces the impact of any sincere element of horror.
Kate Beckinsale’s character is the strongest part of this movie. As Dana she is a firm, hardworking woman who is clearly besieged by her own demons of guilt. Her journey throughout the story becomes fractured and more nonsensical as she loses her sense of what is real and what is an illusion, and provides the more poignant moments of horror. She begins to subconsciously identify more and more with Judge Blacker, who murdered Laura out of shame for her disfigurement, and this drives her to confront her own sense of guilt in the death of her youngest daughter. This is all illustrated in the devastating and tense scene at a dinner party hosted by her husband. This was actually my favorite part of the movie and I felt chills in the back of my spine as Dana finally speaks her truth at the table. Her performance really helped maintain my interest in an otherwise lackluster film.
The Disappointments Room is just that, an amalgam of bland plot devices that don’t ever truly gel into a cohesive ghost story, confining its audience along with it. In a way, I suppose, it promised to disappoint me with its title. The final act devolves and plot points are left unresolved. It wraps up quickly and mercifully for the viewer, but it can’t help itself in attempting and failing at giving the viewer one final scare. It is not the worst thing, but it has more of a travel-channel horror episode feel to it, the sort of thing you put on Netflix while you knit, do homework, or play tic-tac-toe with yourself. If one is looking for horror, you’re better off researching what an actual disappointments room is, where inhumanity and darkness are imposed on those most vulnerable in our society.