It's been nearly 50 years since the hippie movement's utopian dreams bled out after the Manson Family murders in 1969, and our culture has only grown more cynical in the decades since. But there are still broken people out there searching for answers, and there are still self-appointed gurus waiting for them with open arms and big fake smiles. As illustrated by David Marmor's feature debut, 'Apartment 1BR', sometimes it's hard to tell what those smiling faces are hiding behind their backs.
Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) is newly relocated to Los Angeles and aiming to pursue costume design. She lands a temp office job quickly, befriends a sassy co-worker Lisa (Celeste Sully), and then stumbles upon a listing for a one-bedroom apartment inside a friendly complex, Asilo del Mar. It seems too good to be true. Sarah is shy, alone in the city and estranged from father, so she's reassured by the community of people living within the beige stucco walls. It's like a small village of all ages and backgrounds who seem to know everything about each other, including handsome boy-next-door Brian (Giles Matthey) and ailing elderly actress Edie (Susan Davis).
Then it all goes a bit 'Rosemary's Baby', as Sarah notices clanging pipes in her apartment's walls, someone slips a nasty note under her door about her cat, and a creepy guy with an eyepatch named Lester (Clayton Hoff) tries to hand her a New Age self-help book titled 'The Power of Community'. As it turns out, she was chosen from a group of prospective renters by the complex's leader, a man named Jerry (Taylor Nichols), to join an unusual little community that isn't too keen on pets in the building.
Based on four tenets from the teachings of a long-dead guru, Charles D. Ellerby - selflessness, openness, acceptance and security - Jerry preaches a strange brew of introspection and communism. He operates a society that is notable for its racial inclusivity, social progressiveness, and shunning of any frivolous distractions. But Marmor's film explores how easily utopian ideals can sour into something more dangerous. It also really gets to the heart of what is so uncanny about the cult experience: the secrecy and the unspoken collusion between a whole community of people that can warp an outsider's sense of everything they formerly believed.
Weirdo cults and people desperate for somewhere to belong have been explored recently in films like Ari Aster's 'Midsommar' and Kurtis David Harder's 'Spiral', but 'Apartment 1BR' reminded me more of a documentary that I'd watched about the NXIVM sex cult. The members were taken advantage of and used and exploited, and they then used and exploited the people below them, setting up an interlocking dynamic that proved difficult to break free from. The longer you're in, the deeper you're in, and the harder it is to get out. People end up being in an enclosed reality, where a certain kind of evil becomes normalised and their own self-confidence and sense of morality is broken down. 'Apartment 1BR' even features a scene of ritualistic branding straight from the DOS playbook.
Marmor's film explores how easily utopian ideals can sour into something more dangerous.
A bonus is a cast that is committed to keeping the escalating craziness believable. Nicole Brydon Bloom's Sarah is charming and frustrating in equal measure. The villains are bland and softly-spoken, lacking any moustache-twirling qualities or magnetic Lancaster Dodd-types, and are all the more believable for it. The most likeable character is Sarah's work friend Lisa, although she only appears at the beginning and end of her transformative arc.
David Bolen's cinematography is bleak and minimalist, which is appropriate for a film set in a maze-like residential block. Sure, the opening setup of 'Apartment 1BR' is ponderous and the movie sags under the weight of some prolonged scenes of brutality involving stress positions and psychological warfare. However, the film eventually finds its rhythm as a thoughtful 'Stanford Prison Experiment'-style chiller and charges towards a climax that, while riffing heavily on Karyn Kusama's 'The Invitation', is ultimately satisfying.
'Apartment 1BR' is an effective reminder that the terrifying stuff doesn't just take place in some gothic castle or haunted house. It's out there on the streets too, in the modern day.