1BR (2020) movie review
1BR is an independent horror film from (purchased by) Netflix, which apparently received its internet release in April after several film festival runs. I thought it was more recent than that, but hey at least I’m not paying $30 to watch a movie from 1998. Anyway, 1BR, or One Bed Room, follows Sarah, a girl trying to make a new life for herself in a small apartment in LA. However her luck changes when she discovers that her neighbors are more dangerous then they seem…
Before I begin, I wanted to give a special thanks to my pals Alex, Clint, and Matt over at Production Meetings for recommending this review! I wasn’t able to be a part of their weekly video talking about this film, but I will leave a like to said video in the comments if you want to hear more about it and other movie news! And now back to the little cult film that could!
So I realized that the easiest way to explain why 1BR was as bad as it is was talking about the story in comparison to a few films that take different approaches to similar subject material. That means that if for some reason beyond me, if you want to know nothing about this thriller about as scary as the manakin episode from Doctor Who (2005-), knock yourself out, because I have to talk about the story. So SPOILERS.
It’s a cult; her neighbors are all in a cult. It’s neither covert nor any deeper than that. So 1BR misfires on all cylinders, despite having a unique thought here and there. So why doesn’t this film work? Well when looking for comparisons, there are plenty of cult films you can choose from, but I want to pick some whose strengths are weaknesses in this film: The Wicker Man (1973), The Invitation (2015), and Midsommar (2019). Also what the heck is 1BR? Great One Bed Room apartment I get it. Why is that the title of the movie? It’s not important to the story whatsoever.
The 1973 cult classic horror film The Wicker Man follows a police sergeant searching for a young girl who has disappeared on a small island in Scotland, only to wind up facing off against a dangerous cult. The original Wicker Man does many things right, including strong performances, a fitting focus on religious themes, and it doesn’t have Nicolas Cage covered in bees. However the film knocks its tone out of the park, creating a constant and growing sense of unease that leads to unavoidable terror in the audience. Horror films should scare their audience, but that’s not all jumpscares and nervous looks at dark corners. Often the scariest thing to watch is the inability to do anything but watch, and that is where many cult films stick with its viewers. How does it accomplish this goal?
Well it employs something that works only here and there in horror films; it relies in the audience knowing more than the protagonist. In this case the sergeant is aware of the nature of the cult, but not of the danger they present to him thanks to his blinding attempts to confront the cult. This not only works to slowly draw the audience more and more into a feeling of helplessness, but it gets us invested in the protagonist; a point which I will get back to talking about Midsommar. 1BR chooses to forgo the build-up, going straight from scary warning #2 to revealing the dangerous nature of the cult right away. The tension is broken, and now we have to lean on the themes and the protagonist; neither of which hold up the film. 1BR simply isn’t scary.
In the 2015 film The Invitation, a couple is invited to a dinner party when the hosts of the party begin to display unsettling behavior. Admittedly, The Invitation does not have as strong of a focus on themes as The Wicker Man does, however it does take regular people and throw them into a situation for which they are totally unprepared. Now at the risk of spoiling the film, the ending plays out in proper horror fashion, only to quickly turn the tables on the audience and advance the story beyond what we had previously expected it to be. 1BR has a similar approach to the themes and the story. At the start of the film, we learn that both protagonists Sarah from 1BR and Will and Eden from The Invitation struggle to stand up for themselves. However where The Invitation slowly forces its characters to change, 1BR chooses to ask the audience some vague questions about choice while not giving Sarah any choice beyond join the cult. By the end, 1BR paints a similar situation, only since we did not see Sarah struggle to grow early on against this group, we don’t feel a connection to the danger. As much as I didn’t love The Invitation, I had no idea how important the opening to this film was until I got to the end. 1BR lacks such an opening, failing to set up its protagonist and its story.
When I saw Midsommar, I had several bizarre feelings about what I just watched, but my one takeaway from the film was that Dani made the movie for me. If you haven’t watched Midsommar, I won’t spoil it here, but I highly recommend watching it. It is not only a slow burn decent into horror like The Wicker Man (landing its story beats like The Invitation), but like every film should be to its core, Midsommar is a character piece. Early on we learn about Dani. We learn what drives her, and what she needs to do to overcome her flaw. By the end of the film, we are taken through many twists and turns that bring Dani to a choice: Change or stay the same. The fate of the story, as well as the other characters, hang in the balance. So if you watched Midsommar and didn’t know why you were so invested, it is probably your connection with Dani’s story. In 1BR we meet Sarah already having left her family behind. We don’t get a good sense of who she is until a forced discussion with her employer, in which she agrees to do work off the clock. We now know that Sarah has to learn how to stand up for herself. She is then thrust into the story with no choice but to participate. That is until well past the start of the third act, where we are given what seems to be an inciting incident and all of Sarah’s character development in the final five minutes of the film. We didn’t know Sarah well until the end of the film, so why should we care about her? The answer is that we don’t.
1BR has rare moments of smart writing, and it tries to be different, but overall fails. Aside from aspects that I didn’t even talk about, like the often terrible performances, the on the nose dialogue, and the comically nonsensical world that can only exist in an LA conspiracy theory, 1BR fails as both a horror film and a character driven story. The film chooses to break the slow-burn pace, but without any character development for Sarah early on, and no clear stakes for the story, we are left to watch 90 minutes of a character we don’t care about joining a cult we don’t know anything about: The Movie. 3/10.
So 1BR? Did you watch it? What did you think? And what are your favorite and least favorite horror films of 2020 so far? I know that’s not a lot of options, but I would love to hear answers anyway! And don’t forget to check out the review of 1BR and more from production Meetings that I will leave in the comments!
-review by Ryan Prince