Producers: Alok Mishra, Sam Sandweiss, Shane Vorster, Allard Cantor, Jarrod Murray, Nic Izzi and Peter Phok Director: David Marmor Screenplay: David Marmor Cast: Nicole Brydon Bloom, Alan Blumenfeld, Susan Davis, Naomi Grossman, Clayton Hoff, Giles Matthey, Taylor Nichols, Earnestine Phillips, Curtis Webster and Celeste Sully Distributor: Dark Sky Films
David Marmor’s film starts with an ingenious premise about covert cult indoctrination, but his execution fails to invest the cautionary tale with the intensity it needs. The result is a consistently intriguing but oddly limp would-be thriller.
Mousy Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) comes to Los Angeles fleeing her father Gus (Alan Blumenfeld), whom she blames for cheating on her dying mother. (He keeps calling and asking her to come home, but she refuses.) She finds a job at a law firm, where she admires coworker Lisa’s (Celeste Sully) ability not to allow herself to be browbeaten (a skill Sarah decidedly lacks), but is having trouble locating an affordable apartment. She applies for a slot at what looks like a particularly attractive complex, but has little hope of getting it. Much to her surprise, after a visit to an open house she’s invited to join the ostensibly friendly, extremely tight-knit community.
At first things seem to go well. She bonds with one of the older residents, an actress named Edie (Susan Davis), and finds handsome Brian (Giles Matthey) particularly engaging. Jerry (Taylor Nichols), the manager, and his wife Janice (Naomi Grossman) are anxious to please, inviting her to a communal cook-out, and all the other neighbors are cordial as well. Only Lester (Clayton Hoff), a sullen fellow wearing an eye-patch, causes her some concern; he insists she read a book on the power of community which, he says, changed his life.
Perhaps he’s responsible for the strange noises that wake her at night—which may be payback for the fact that she lied on her application about not having a pet, and has snuck her cat in against the regulations. But that’s only the beginning of the unnerving events.
The revelation about all the strangeness is that the building represents a realization of a cultish communal enterprise inspired by the thought of a guru named Charles Ellerby (Curtis Webster), who preaches a gospel based on what he calls the four foundations of selflessness, openness, acceptance and security. That might sound appealing in theory, but its implementation proves more than a little unpleasant for Sarah, who must involuntarily undergo the group’s conditioning, which involves both psychological and physical pressure.
The goal, of course, is submission to the rigid communal regimen of docility and mutual support—fortified, of course, by a battery of cameras and monitors carefully designed to detect any infractions. The question is how complete Sarah’s enforced conversion is—something that will be tested when she’s assigned the duty of overseeing a new resident’s forced induction into the community—the same process that she was compelled to endure.
“1BR” is an unsettling glimpse into how an urban cult might operate on fragile, emotionally stunted individuals, and the fact that it’s based on actual research into such group’s methods makes it all the more so. It does at times come perilously close to torture porn territory (as well as coming across as the slighter sister of “Rosemary’s Baby”), but doesn’t go overboard in that department. For a contemporary horror film, it’s about as mousy as its protagonist.
Unhappily, that restraint is characteristic of other aspects of the film as well, and the result is that the suspense and tension it should generate are dampened. Most of the performances feel muted, with Bloom mostly bland. One appreciates it when Davis and Sully are on, simply because they exhibit a bit of vitality lacking elsewhere. The others are fairly colorless, with even Hoff showing little spark. The cult members are supposed to be smiling robots to a great extent, but that doesn’t make for much excitement.
Nor are the craft contributions at all remarkable. David Bolen’s cinematography, Ricardo Jattan’s production design, the editing by Marmor, Richard Fox and Anna Rotke and Ronen Landa’s score are all competent but little more.
You might say that “1BR” just doesn’t live up to the promise of its premise. Like so many apartments, it turns out to be a rather drab affair.