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Review: ‘The Roommate’

Single White Female Preferred

Minka Kelly and Leighton Meester star in

Credit: Screen Gems

Above: Minka Kelly and Leighton Meester star in "The Roommate."

A woman becomes terrorized by a psycho roommate. No it's not "Single White Female III." It's the "new" film "The Roommate" (opening February 4 throughout San Diego).

Producer-writer Sonny Mallhi wouldn't know an original idea if it came up and bit him in the ass. Everything he has worked on has been a remake ("Lake House," "Shutter," "Possession") or a rip off ("The Strangers," "The Roommate"). I don't know how he can pretend his script for "The Roommate" is anything but a remake of "Single White Female" (1992). The only difference is that "Single White Female" had a real director, Barbet Schroeder, at the helm, and the gifted Jennifer Jason Leigh as the demented roommate. Plus, "SWF" was rated R and was willing to go someplace dark.

"The Roommate," on the other hand, is PG-13 and so scared of its own shadow that it's incapable of scaring an audience over the age of 10. In part I blame Japanese horror for this lame film. Let me explain.

Trailer: "Ringu"

Trailer for the J-horror film "Ringu."

Japanese horror had resurgence in the 90s with atmospheric films most involving ghosts, women, and not a lot of gore. Films like "Ringu," "Ju-on," and "Dark Water" were hits in Japan and all inspired American remakes. The remake of "The Ring" proved successful in the U.S. and it also opened the eyes of studio executives to a demographic they had never paid attention to before in the horror genre: young girls. These Hollywood remakes of atmospheric Japanese genre films attempted to create creepy moods, use young female protagonists, and deliver chills without explicit gore. They were also all rated PG-13. So young girls turned out in droves. (The remakes of "The Ring" and "The Grudge" both grossed more than $100 million.) So that sent studio executives into a feeding frenzy looking for more PG-13 horror material. This meant hardcore horror fans got bombarded with trite horror fare like "When a Stranger Calls," "The Ring" and "The Grudge" sequels, "The Messengers," "The Skeleton Key" and more. All were lily-livered horror entries pandering to a teen girl audience that Hollywood studios thought they could exploit. Understanding this bit of cinema history helps explain what has led in part to "The Roommate" – a bloodless, femme-centric, PG-13, lamely unoriginal attempt at horror.

(One disclaimer here, the Japanese horror films that set this trend in motion were actually nifty genre pics fueled by style, subtle scares, and an understanding of certain cultural superstitions. The Hollywood rip offs failed to understand what made those films work and what made them good. Hollywood, as it is prone to do, only imitated the surface elements and not the true style and substance of those films.)

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Screen Gems

Minka Kelly and former sparkling vampire Cam Gigandet are lovers in "The Roommate."

So back to "The Roommate." With a PG-13 rating, there is no nudity, no explicit gore, and, most importantly, no commitment to actually trying to scare the audience by going someplace dark. That's really the most important thing in horror – taking us someplace scary where we face our fears. And going dark – even if there's not a lot of gore or sex – generally requires an R rating. Think of some of the best horror films of recent decades – "Repulsion," "Rosemary's Baby," "The Tenant," "Hellraiser," "The Devil's Backbone," "Let the Right One In," "The Descent" – they all received R ratings yet were not exploitative in terms of gore or nudity. But they got R ratings because they wanted to disturb viewers on some level and that's just not for kids.

"The Roommate," however, just comes up empty on all counts. It's not scary, it's not cheesy, it's not fun exploitation, it's not original, and it's not so bad it's fun. "Single White Female" had flaws but at least Jennifer Jason Leigh succeeded in creating an unhinged and truly disturbed young woman who could scare us. With Leighton Meester (who can also be seen in "Country Strong") we get cute deranged. Her Rebecca is never allowed to get truly scary. Even when she finally gets to kill someone, it is a silly, bloodless incident that's not built up or played for tension or discomfort.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Screen Gems

Director Christian E. Christiansen on the set of "The Roommate."

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that only a film with nudity and gore can be a good horror film. What I'm saying is that a horror film has to do something well, and "The Roommate" doesn't even deliver on the cheap thrills of boobs and blood. To be a successful PG-13 horror film, the main thing you need is style and director Christian E. Christiansen has none. Christiansen is incapable of building tension or creating an unnerving atmosphere, or even just making his images look good. Filmmaker David Cronenberg told me in an interview that he's not interested in "comfortable cinema." But Christiansen is all about making us comfortable and that's all wrong for a horror film. Even when Rebecca turns evil, Christiansen tends to have his camera look away so as not to upset us too much. Then he adds to his problems by casting two adorable stars in Meester and the Minnie Mouse-sounding Minka Kelly. Meester has trouble being scary and Kelly has trouble looking scared with all those dimples. This is a horror film Hannah Montana would feel safe in.

Maybe I should have labeled this a rant instead of a review but I'm getting mad as hell about these bad horror films and I don't want to take it any more, especially when February has been dubbed Women in Horror Month by Hannah Neurotica and when Bleedfest up in LA will be devoting a day to women who make horror for their Women in Horror Fest on February 6. There are no women in major roles behind the camera for "The Roommate" and perhaps that's why the women in from of the camera are so dumb.

"The Roommate" (rated PG-13 for violence and menace, sexual content, some language, and teen partying) is yet another lame horror film. I can only hope it bombs at the box office so that the studios stop investing in these badly conceived, highly unoriginal, PG-13 horror films. I can sum it up like this: no boobs, no blood, no point. Walk away from this one please!

Companion viewing: "Single White Female," "Repulsion," "The Tenant"

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