IN THE ROOM WHERE HE WAITS

★★★

A BENIGN HORROR TRANSFORMED INTO AN INVENTIVE PSYCHOLOGICAL NIGHTMARE

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
8th July 2024

The idea of cinema responding to the COVID-19 pandemic always felt like a ticking bomb. On the one hand, there was the possibility of a nuanced, imaginative response, where this defining global event could be carefully unpacked. On the other, it could also result in some lazy, obvious responses that weaponise that experience for as a cheap provocation. With his debut feature film 'In The Room Where He Waits', Australian writer and director Timothy Despina Marshall has thankfully created a work of the former kind. Taking the imposed restrictions around the circumstances of hotel quarantine (perhaps the most bizarre of the standard forms of lockdown we experienced) and using them as an opportunity for inventive filmmaking, Marshall has taken the monotony, absurdity and frustration of the height of the lockdowns and fashioned them into a taught, forceful horror chamber piece.

Toby (Daniel Monks, 'NT Live: The Seagull', 'Sissy'), an Australian actor living in LA, finds himself in a mandatory two week quarantine in a COVID hotel in Brisbane. Even though he's about to start rehearsals for a major stage production of Tennessee Williams' 'The Glass Menagerie' in the United States, he has had to fly to Australia after the unexpected death of his father, not only leaving behind his work but his partner, with whom the relationship has become strained. Trapped inside this tiny room on his own, with no living soul in sight, Toby tries his best to stay on top of work and keep himself occupied. As each day bleeds into the next though, he starts to suspect that something may be wrong with this room... that someone, or something, may be in the room with him.

It's such a delicious premise, a horror film set in hotel quarantine, and for the most part, Marshall and his team know how to make the most out of it for maximum effect. There's a genuinely unsettling quality to 'In The Room Where He Waits', the way cinematographer Ben Cotgrove makes the one-room apartment feel labyrinthine and sculpts the limited light sources available to him. With Toby entirely on his own, it's important that the room become a character in itself, even with its standard fittings. In fact, the ordinariness of the room and the instant recognition of Toby's immediate circumstances are integral to its impact. Great horror is a subversion of the familiar and the domestic, such as the violation of the family home in 'The Exorcist' or 'Rosemary's Baby', where things we take for granted on a daily basis are suddenly imbued with a threatening aura. What begins as a nondescript hotel room soon becomes an endless series of sharp corners and hidden spaces where anything might be lurking, a physical manifestation of its occupant's strained psyche.

'IN THE ROOM WHERE HE WAITS' TRAILER

The room becomes a highly charged psychological environment, the immediate frustrations for Toby being alone in a hotel room for two weeks acting as the spark to the powder keg of his own sense of inadequacy and confusion. There's the fear of losing this great gig he's always dreamed about, a paranoia that leads him to tell one silly lie after another, combined with his confused feelings about what has happened to his father. Toby certainly feels in line with the iconic characters of the great haunted house stories, in that we question whether what we are seeing is the result of what is already there, what Toby brings into the room with him, or perhaps even a combination of both. Isolation is also key to these stories, and the circumstances Marshall places Toby in offer a fantastic variation on this classical kind of psychological haunting.

Part of our connection with Toby comes down to his emotional journey through the film, which is beautifully executed in some respects and frustratingly distancing in others. Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Daniel Monks, but with an actor of his calibre (acclaimed for his work on stage here in Australia and in the UK), there's a guarantee that Toby will be, at the very least, nuanced and fascinating. Both openly queer and disabled, Monks brings a strong verisimilitude to Toby, meaning that his queerness and his experience with disability add a necessary specificity to the film. The strongest moments of observing Toby in the film come from his navigating of these two aspects of his identity - staying fit and navigating a room not built to accomodate him, and scrolling Grindr for some sort of text-based connection from inside his hotel prison. We learn so much about him in these moments, particularly when they intersect, the film providing a focused commentary on how physical appearance is treated as currency between gay men. This commentary becomes part of the soup that makes up the haunting itself, and Monks charts the transition from routine to building panic with great skill. For the most part, the film is driven by action (from whatever it is in the room) and reaction (how Toby deals with it), all of which Monks handles with sincerity and authenticity. In fact, as that panic begins to build and the danger becomes more potent, Toby's emotional suffering becomes all the more upsetting and nerve-racking to watch.

While these immediate factors help us to connect with Toby, elements of the writing itself aren't as successful in keeping us with him. By virtue of the fact Toby is alone (well, we think he is alone), some of the exposition has to come through Zoom or phone conversations. The ones with his mother (Susie Porter, 'Ladies in Black') work well, with the two actors finding a strong, at times antagonistic, dynamic, but the conversations between Toby and his U.S. theatre colleagues never quite find their rhythm. There's less space for nuance in these moments, with many of these scenes seemingly there to advance the plot rather than add detail to our understanding of Toby, and the people he speaks with falling into standard theatre stereotypes. Compared to the clarity of why Toby is in the room in the first place (hotel quarantine after the loss of a parent), the acting subplot feels convoluted and unnecessarily complicated, acting more as a distraction, and this distraction becomes frustrating both because much of the visual storytelling is stronger as an expositional tool, and because so much of what is happening around these Zoom rehearsals is so arresting and affecting. It's an additional flavour to a film that's already full of flavour.

There are so many deeply unsettling images in 'In the Room Where He Waits', and many of them startlingly simple - the flicking off of a light, the sound of a keycard hitting the floor. One that has stayed with me long after seeing the film is a benign shot of the curtained window early in the morning, with a barely perceptible anomaly just on its edge.

As we move from day to day and Toby becomes more convinced that he isn't alone in this room that he cannot leave, the film develops a sophisticated and unforgiving horror language, one that feels both classical and refreshing. Unlike a film as derivative with its influences as 'Birdeater', another 2024 Aussie horror film from first time filmmakers, Marshall looks to great haunted house films such as 'The Shining' or 'Hereditary' and is more concerned with the effects of their iconography rather than imitating them. Along with Cotgrove, editor Florence Holmes and sound recordist Nicholas Rowan, they then find their own variations on them. There are so many deeply unsettling images in 'In the Room Where He Waits', and many of them startlingly simple - the flicking off of a light, the sound of a keycard hitting the floor. One that has stayed with me long after seeing the film is a benign shot of the curtained window early in the morning, with a barely perceptible anomaly just on its edge. I'm always so much more excited by a horror film that intrinsically understands what it's doing, and this is a really great example of how simple choices can create such a rich, unnerving air of mystery, menace and danger.

There is some confusion with the ending, the many threads getting tangled as they try to come together, but the immediate aftereffect of 'In The Room Where He Waits' is one of a pleasant unsettledness. Marshall is reticent to make it all abundantly clear, but though it doesn't entirely pull off this kind of ambiguity successfully, you never get the sense that the film doesn't know what it wants to say. The issue is more just how best to say it. Where a film like 'Barbarian' undoes itself with an ending that's far too neat and far less intelligent than the rest of the film, 'In The Room...' is willing to leave us with a riddle, and while not a riddle that feels easy to decipher, it's certainly not an unsatisfying riddle to be presented with.

There's such a great sense of craft with 'In The Room Where He Waits', a terrific demonstration of emerging talents flexing their muscles. Even with the faults in the writing, the direction from Timothy Despina Marshall is assured, confident and specific without ever being didactic or showy. His choices are always what he feels is necessary for the film to work, and for the most part, he hits the mark keenly. As the heart and soul of the film, Daniel Monks is terrific, a nuanced and intelligent actor that ensures his character feels rounded and dimensional, with agency even in the face of this unseen menace. It feels glib to say that I'm keen to see what Marshall does next, but there's a lot of promise and a lot to admire about 'In The Room Where He Waits', a film that takes something we remember deep in our bones and turns the benign nightmare of it into an actual nightmare. It's a killer premise executed with flair, and more than worth a few dark, threatening hours in a cinema.

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