After a troubled quest for distribution, a new project from the Hammer Studio has found its way to America. The Resident, starring Hilary Swank and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is an uncomfortable little thriller about the perils of talking to strangers, and particularly strangers willing to rent fabulous lodgings for curiously low prices. Though it played in UK cinemas, and a couple of European markets, the film found less welcoming arms across the Atlantic. Why did distributors in the USA pass this up? Given the low average of Hollywood’s output in early 2011, a shocker like this would at least have gotten our attention. It may not be as memorable a film as Hammer’s last big effort, the brooding vampire romance Let Me In, but it is well above straight-to-video caliber. One would think that having Hilary Swank as an executive producer, as well as a star, would give the movie enough clout for a major USA release.
Swank, a perennial paragon of powerful femininity, plays Juliet, an emergency room doc adrift in New York since her personal life has taken a nose dive. Fortune seems to smile down upon Juliet one day, as a mysterious tip leads her to a charming and spacious apartment owned by Max (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose kindly demeanor and reasonable rates seem too good to be true. Which, of course, we know they must be.
At first, things go so well that it appears romance might be blooming between landlord and tenant. Juliet is sweet, vulnerable, and longing for someone to ease her stressful work week and painful memories. Max seems friendly, sympathetic, and attractively quirky. Add to this that Jeffrey Dean Morgan is ruggedly handsome, like a blue collar answer to Robert Downey, Junior. Perhaps Juliet need not try to patch things up with her ex at all.
Or perhaps yes. I am not spoiling anything you cannot see in the trailer in telling you that Max actually has some major problems. He has drilled Juliet’s apartment full of peepholes and secret passages. He creeps around inside the walls, watching her obsessively by night, even as he casually insinuates himself into her life by day. This revelation comes quite early in the script, so do not feel betrayed. You probably knew it was coming anyway. As if all the voyeurism were not bad enough, it soon becomes clear that this young man wants to escalate the relationship, and may not take kindly to Juliet’s lingering feelings for her ex.
For the major supporting role, Hammer managed to wrangle its greatest star – Sir Christopher Lee, still acting at nearly 90, over thirty years since he last played Dracula for Hammer. Lee plays August, Max’s morose grandfather who knows that the smiling landlord harbors dark secrets in the walls. August is a character with lots of potential and less payoff, and adds up to little more than a gratuitous extended cameo. That’s fine, but I expected him to play a larger part in warning Juliet about the danger hanging over her. Nonetheless, it is always a pleasure to see a legend of the genre still in the game.
Since the voyeurism angle becomes clear almost right away, Max’s attempts to possess Juliet have time to attain some very disturbing and unsavory levels indeed, before she begins to understand just what is going on. Departing from the traditional Hammer legacy of women in peril – more often than not from the designs of Count Dracula – The Resident presents its heroine as perhaps a little too trusting for an adult living in the big city, but very much up to the challenge of looking after herself. It might have been easier on her had she put the pieces together early on, but remember that she’s been through a lot lately.
The spirit of Hammer shines at its brightest when dealing with either monsters or madness. Frightening and morally reprehensible as Max’s lifestyle is, the character never graduates beyond the garden variety movie psycho to become an engaging figure of menace. His madness suffers from a crippling lack of originality, and after a certain point he is simply unpleasant without being fun to watch (as vampires usually are, for example).
Unfortunately, the villain who’s completely bonkers simply because he’s bonkers is a rare and undervalued figure in movies today. I do not care how serious your subject matter is. Psychoanalyzing your bad guy weakens him as an instrument of fear, especially when you are lazy about it. Leaving aside questions of taste, dramatic quality, artistic legitimacy – whatever – one thing that Tom Six got absolutely right in The Human Centipede was an outrageously mad scientist, whose motives could never be rationally explained in a million years. Staring into human eyes without a trace of humanity in them always trumps the idea of someone who hurts people because nobody hugged him at a crucial moment of childhood. For a more relevant example, consider Klaus Kinski in Crawlspace (1986). He too lures young ladies into his home to trap and sadistically “inconvenience” them. But his madness is all wrapped up in Nazi doctrine, Russian roulette, gratuitous lipstick and so on. Scary man! Kah-RAZY man! It works better.
A more obvious parallel is the curiously absurd thriller Pacific Heights, starring Michael Keaton as a sociopathic landlord trying to run Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith out of his apartment. And hey, who could blame him?
… Ha ha. Seriously though, his primary motive is stealing their money, but like Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark or Sir Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers, his obsessive quest for the loot gradually unmasks him as a man with much deeper problems than thievery on his mind. Ultimately, the drama cannot hold, and since it is not funny enough to be a dark comedy, this promising premise falls flat under the weight of unintentional silliness. Nonetheless, that particular variety of twisty, seedy, gleefully nasty entertainment is typical of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those were the days when theaters cheerfully released anything with too much frontal nudity for television. Who remembers Sliver and Unlawful Entry? Reading The Resident as an homage to that kind of movie is a charitable way of excusing its various flaws, but I cannot believe in my heart that this was the intention of the filmmakers.
The Resident is nicely paced, moodily presented, eerily scored and based upon a very creepy idea. As a rather by-the-book thriller, it satisfies on many levels. If the characters are nothing new, at least the structure has some less familiar kinks. By revealing Max’s true nature early on (to the audience, and not to Juliet), the movie switches abruptly from a creepy mystery to a dread-heavy thriller. Instead of discovering the danger along with Juliet, viewers are given a little head start, so that they are already yelling, “Get out of there!” just as Juliet is starting to feel at home.
This early twist completely changes the meaning of everything Max says and does. Knowing so soon that the thoughtful, sensitive man he appears to be is a sick lie relieves the burden of having to rethink everything that happened in the film, looking for plot holes.
The Resident will not make it into the halls of legend, but it is an appropriately sinister little package that could have sold a lot of popcorn. I imagine that the heavy atmosphere works best on a large movie screen, but with the lights off in a decent sized room, it is plenty spooky. Fool that I am, I watched it by myself in a brand new apartment and passed a rather restless night for my trouble. Happily, it is far less likely that someone would spy on me than on Hilary Swank.
If this one drifts through your drugstore video box, I say check it out.