One thing that’s worth praising about Doom Room: though the film’s setup might make it sound like yet another entry in horror’s much-maligned “torture porn” sub-genre, thankfully, it isn’t one.
Another thing: the title is kind of fun to say.
And, well, that’s about as far as the unabashed accolades for this UK import are going to go. Doom Room isn’t completely bereft of ideas, and elements of its stagy, self-contained approach to horror do occasionally work, but for a movie that’s so deeply invested in kinky sex and psychological terror, it’s an awfully tedious affair that can be pretty hard to take seriously.
Directed and co-written by Jon Keeyes, the film takes place on one set, a dimly-lit cellar in which the unnamed, young female protagonist (Johanna Stanton) wakes up on a bed, with (as per usual) no idea of how she got there. Worse, she’s also not sure of her own identity, and when she quickly discovers that the room is inescapable, our Jane Doe can’t even be entirely certain that there isn’t some good reason why she’s been imprisoned there.
Eventually, various characters start popping in and out of existence in the room with her, some of them seemingly friendly (though rather unhelpful) and others hell-bent on tormenting her.
“…unnamed, young female protagonist wakes up on a bed, with (as per usual) no idea of how she got there.”
Firmly in the latter category are a gleefully sadistic couple that the film’s credits refer to as Husband (Matthew Tompkins) and Wife (Debbie Rochon), who force Jane to watch various scenes of perverse sexual coupling and threaten her with verbal and physical assault. They’re soon joined by a hodgepodge of others, including a mute middle-aged man (Nicholas Ball), an eyeless woman in a Victorian corset (Katie Kensit), and a fire-and-brimstone religious inquisitor (James Simmons).
How any of these people fit into Jane’s world, and why they’re able to show up and disappear willy-nilly, are at the center of Doom Room‘s central mystery. But whether they’re ghosts or drug-induced hallucinations or projections of Jane or someone else, none of them are ever as sympathetic, menacing, nor sexy as the film clearly hopes they’ll be.
Part of the problem is that scenes often cut off abruptly without any real resolution – Doom Room very quickly establishes a pattern in which, just when the tension starts to peak or Jane is about to make an important personal connection or discovery, the lights go out, she wakes up in bed again, and we’re on to something else. That constant reshuffling deflates a lot of the tension really early on, and it makes even the more effective moments – for instance, Jane sharing a moment of motherly bonding with an innocent teenage girl (Hayden Tweedie) or being grotesquely pawed at by the Husband – feel largely inconsequential.
The filmmakers might have somewhat compensated for the story’s flatness with a compelling visual style, but, alas, Doom Room comes up lacking in that department, as well. The lighting is decent – in a 90s-era heavy metal video sort of way, at least – but the film really doesn’t make a strong enough effort to hide its seemingly very small budget and bargain-bin production design. The set has the feel of a low-rent stage production, with props strewn about the titular room that are all too obviously cheap Halloween decorations and thrift-store pickups (the BDSM Barbie dolls are kind of a nice touch, though); the supposedly impenetrable steel door that keeps Jane locked in is a laughably shoddy-looking plywood creation. There are ways to shoot around these kinds of limitations, or even to make them part of a film’s aesthetic, but Doom Room doesn’t seem committed enough to attempt them.
“…constant reshuffling deflates a lot of the tension really early on…”
The performances, at least, are mostly passable. Stanton, who’s never offscreen for more than a few seconds at a time, smartly avoids the usual tics and cliches of movie amnesiacs, and she’s able to make Jane feel like an active, dynamic protagonist – even though the script doesn’t allow her to really do very much, at all. Ball is a standout, also, bringing a little bit of Michael Caine-ish gravitas to a role that also, unfortunately, calls for him to do a lot of silly-looking pantomiming. Worst off are Tompkins and Rochon; his smiling sadism often comes off more as goofy than menacing, and though she’s a tried-and-true horror veteran, fans can probably name dozens of movies where she’s been more fully invested in a juicier, creepier villainess role.
With so many elements stacked against it, Doom Room does finish relatively strongly with an ending that, while not particularly original, pretty much makes sense logically and thematically. You can’t fault anyone who makes it to the film’s final moments for thinking that, with a different execution or even in a different medium – a theatrical piece, perhaps – this story and its underlying ideas conceivably could have held water. But, at least until Doom Room: The Musical makes its Broadway debut (maybe let’s not get Kristin Chenoweth on the phone quite yet) this movie is what we’ve got, and what we’ve got’s just not so hot.
Doom Room (2019) Directed by Jon Keeyes. Written by Jon Keeyes and Carl Kirshner. Starring Johanna Stanton, Nicholas Ball, Matthew Tompkins, Debbie Rochon, Hayden Tweedie, Claire Jared, Katie Kensit, James Simmons, Scott Christie
3.5 out of 10