There’s a lot to like about this movie but before I get to the good stuff, I’ve got a bone or two to pick with it. The premise of a haunted bed that will cause the death of any occupant who tries to leave is a good one. Films that place a seemingly impossibly restrictive limitation on where their action can or cannot go often rise to the challenge by the use of inventive camera work, smart editing and clever narrative devices. Films such as Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2003), Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried (2010) or Steven Knight’s Locke (2014) come to mind and whilst THE DWELLING might not reach the calibre of those movies, director Jeff Mahey does a good job of sustaining the tension with how he solves this self-imposed limitation. But that’s not the bone I want pick. My issue is with how much we need to join the dots in order to explain how this haunted bed (aka the bed of the dead) got be what it is and where it is in the first place.
In an effort to explain its origins, the film starts with a group of seemingly medieval monks dragging some poor, desperate guy across a field towards a creepy looking tree where bodies are strung up and left to die. We know this because we see the gruesome, mutilated remains of the desperate guy’s predecessor swinging in the breeze. What we don’t know is whether the tree is there as an instrument of torture, as a means of punishment or as a place of sacrifice. Are the monks goodies or baddies? It’s not clear. Some time later (although it’s uncertain how much later) we meet a massive, lumbering woodcutter draped in chains. Why the chains? Not clear. What is clear is that he cuts down the tree and fashions the timber into something that looks like a Celtic knot that forms the image of the tree... and the next thing we know that wooden image is embedded in the headboard of an enormous four poster bed (that’s described by one character as an ‘Emperor-sized bed’) that, inexplicably, is in a city sex-club, the kind of place where cashed-up twenty-somethings go to indulge themselves in fantasy sex. Obviously, there’s meant to be a through-line here that explains to us why this bed is evil and where its power comes from, but the links are tenuous and vague and the location of the bed in a sex club seems more about titillation than it is about the origin story.
What’s not vague, though, is that this bed is bad. Once you’re tucked up in it you’re its prisoner and it plays hallucinatory tricks on you, exploiting any guilt you feel for things you have or haven’t done in your life, and using that to lure you off the bed where you are sure to die a horrible, bloody death before you can cross the floor and reach the door. Now I don’t mean to be picky with my bone picking, but these kinds of horror stories rely on setting up the ‘rules’ of the evilness that permeates the situation in order for us to know whether our heroes are in peril or not and what they need to do to get to safety. So when our four heroes, Sandy (Alysa King), Nancy (Gwenlyn Cumyn), Ren (Dennis Andres) and Fred (George Krissa) find themselves trapped on the bed, we’re pretty sure that if only they could get out of the room, they’d be fine (mainly because we saw that they and a whole bunch of other people were quite safely out there before) but that ‘rule’ gets broken about half way through the film when whatever this evil entity is extends its reach beyond the room and into the corridor. Add to that a flashback scene where we see the sex club owner Brass (Alex Loubert) frolicking on the evil bed with a couple of belles du jour and he obviously lives to tell the tale, so clearly the rules that define this evil are somewhat rubbery.
Okay, having got all that off my chest, let’s focus on what really works in this film. The story unfolds in two timeframes – one that is told through the eyes of Virgil (Colin Price) a burnt-out cop who is investigating the aftermath of what happens to our heroes in the club (no spoilers, but you can guess that it’s bad). The second timeframe is several hours before when we follow the fates of Sandy, Nancy, Ren and Fred as they each succumb in one way or the other to the dark powers of the bed. The really clever element here is that through some spooky phone network glitch, Sandy can talk to Virgil on her mobile and the two realities are suddenly linked.
This also gives us the ticking timebomb, given Virgil not only knows what happens but when it happens, and his mission now is to save Sandy (and her friends if he can) in an effort to redeem himself for the transgression that has set him on the path to ruin. It’s a good idea and it plays out well with a nice surprise ending.
The other element of this film that is really strong is that for what seems like a relatively low budget affair, it has pretty high production values, with plenty of extras to fill out the scenes where you need more than just the main characters, good production design (from Justin Reu) and some pretty good special effects (from Carlos Henrique and his team) that elevate the work from a low-brow, schlock horror to a pretty tight and satisfyingly gruesome thriller. Plus, the cast is strong and, in particular, Price and King, on whose shoulders the story really rests, give very believable performances in a very unbelievable situation and, in the end, isn’t that what makes horror work; when the story and the characters convince us that what’s happening is something we should take very seriously.
In the end, though, the strength of the story is let down by the inexplicably convenient conclusions that Virgil jumps to in the way he works out what’s happening with the bed, why it’s able to do what it does and what you need to do to avoid the terrible consequences of leaping off the mattress and running for the door. He seems to work things out off the back of some pretty thin clues and just as we needed to join the dots to make sense of the opening, he seems to have joined the dots to facilitate the end. It’s a shame, because the bulk of the screenplay by Maher and Cody Calahan is really good. With just a bit more cleverness and a more solid backstory it could have been great.