As someone with a habitually over-trusting personality, ending up in a cult has long been one of my worst nightmares. As result, David Marmor’s 1BR was one of the most intense viewing experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s a film that captures the stress of moving into a new apartment, and then opens up into a terrifying examination of community and the loneliness which draws people to cults before they even realize it. This film maybe even convinced me that I never want to move somewhere new again.
Nicole Brydon Bloom stars as Sarah, a young adult who’s trying to strike out on her own and put some distance between herself and her rich, controlling father. At first, Sarah feels personally and professionally lost, but she finds an oasis of stability when she moves into her new apartment. It’s all so perfect: her LA one-bedroom is spacious yet affordable, her neighbors are super helpful, and a cute guy (Giles Matthey) lives on the same floor as her. There are a few minor issues though, the first being that pets aren’t allowed on the premises and Sarah brought her cat anyway. There are also loud noises from the building’s pipes which keep her awake at night. And Sarah can’t help but be creeped out by one of the complex’s other tenants, a one-eyed man (Clayton Hoff) who always seems to be watching her. Although Sarah chalks these problems up to being the acceptable price of an otherwise perfect living arrangement (as most would if they found more than 6 square inches of space in the middle of Los Angeles), she learns the hard way that they were actually red flags for her apartment’s horrific inner nature.
Without giving away too much, I’ll say that when 1BR starts to boil, it really boils, as the story quickly becomes an imprisonment nightmare complete with torture set-pieces, psychological conditioning, and enough appendage mutilation to make anyone who’s ever shut their hand in a door cry out under their breath. I want to put emphasis on “quickly” too, as the film is a brisk 90 minutes that doesn’t waste a single second. Considering the breadth of its cast and the amount of time its story covers, 1BR’s editing is truly phenomenal.
Lest you think 1BR is full of empty torture porn, the film’s most tense sequences are actually more psychological than graphic. More importantly, they all serve the purpose of exploring the inner workings of a cult. At the screening I attended, Marmor cited Synanon and various real-world, sinister “alternative communities” as inspiration for 1BR’s villains, and that work shows.
Downplaying the crass sensationalism that you often find in films about cults, 1BR is, at its heart, a movie about toxic relationships and the people who often find themselves in them. As Sarah, Bloom does an impressive job portraying the learned helplessness of someone who was raised to act complacent, without the character coming off as cloying or dumb. In one scene, Sarah’s dream of standing up to her narcissistic father finally becomes a reality, albeit in the most unimaginably twisted way. It’s a scene that brings out so many conflicting motivations for the character, yet Bloom threads the needle so that you always know what Sarah’s thinking in any given shot. And I’d honestly say the entire cast is working at that level.
I do have some reservations. The film’s first act—though short—suffers from the dreaded “horror movie first act” wonkiness in order to set up all the dramatic turns. The film’s gore shots could stand to look a little less digital, especially since DP David Bolen achieved such an engrossing, textured look for the rest of the film. And although Celeste Sully is wonderfully witty as Sarah’s friend Lisa, I couldn’t help but cringe watching yet another Black character who exists and suffers solely for the purposes of helping a white character grow.
Forgiving those issues, 1BR is the type of horror film that I live for, one that’s grounded in character, with tense, dramatically unfolding set-pieces, and scenes that make me squirm with equal parts terror and delight. Its themes involving cult mentalities, toxic relationships, and assisted suicide make the film an interesting companion to this year’s Midsommar, and to many, the film’s ending will bring to mind Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. But I believe 1BR earns those comparisons, as it’s one more daring and darkly thoughtful horror.