D.J. Caruso’s newest film The Disappointments Room is a ghost story with a twist, the kind of twist that most people have come to expect from films of this nature: it’s never clear whether the hauntings are real, or the source of a woman’s post-traumatic imagination. Caruso had fairly good luck with Disturbia, a pseudo-Rear Window with Shia LaBeouf as the Jimmy Stewart stand-in, but it’s been nearly a decade since his last attempt at horror thrillers. Working with screenplay writer Wentworth Miller, Caruso spins a yarn about a still-grieving family moving into a new house that hews so closely to the status quo that the film gets lost in a sea of look-alikes; worse than that, though, is its off-kilter tone and illogical plot holes.
The Disappointments Room‘s most intriguing concept, of course, is its titular space – taking a real historical idea and making it into a ghost story, hoping to distinguish that idea from other hauntings. Caruso makes the disappointments room come to life – literally – because of Dana’s (Kate Beckinsale) obsession with children; it quickly becomes apparent that she and her husband David (Mel Raido) lost their baby before deciding to pack up and move into the new house in the countryside, and that helps the audience understand her fascination with the disappointments room she finds locked away in the attic. As the room comes to life, exposing a terrifying memory of a deformed girl stashed away from the public by her well-to-do parents, Caruso works in a scary dog, an evil judge (Gerald McRaney), and a lot of images of unfortunate genetic conditions.
But the disappointments room is where the interesting elements of the plot end. Caruso, and particularly Miller’s screenplay, attempts to paint Dana as a modern woman, strong for herself rather than weakened by her recent loss or the mental issues that she’s been facing. It’s a great touch – I’m all for strong female characters in horror, ones who take no bull from anyone else – and for a little while, Dana is an excellent character played well by Beckinsale. But over time, The Disappointments Room‘s script begins to make Dana more and more unlikable, mistaking “strong” for “overwhelmingly bitchy.”
The film requires a change in character to sell its mental illness subplot, but unfortunately the script isn’t subtle enough to handle such a thing. In fact, The Disappointments Room is constantly hinting at Dana’s mental status; flashbacks help the audience glean the full story about the death of her baby, but they’re unnecessary and forced. Even when the film attempts to hold back on its explicitness, the end twist isn’t so much a surprise as a tired sigh: yes, the thing the audience was expecting was exactly what was happening, except maybe it wasn’t.
The biggest problem, though, is that The Disappointments Room doesn’t have much to say about mental illness at all, and more than that, the actual disappointments room has nothing to do with Dana’s feelings about her children. She’s never “disappointed” in them, nor does her frustrations about them lead her to do bad motherly things. Caruso treats mental illness like a catch-all for crazy things that happen, leading to a completely tone-deaf climax where Dana – spontaneously drinking because now that’s a thing she does – flies off the handle, gets mad at her friends, and attacks her son thinking that she’s fighting off ghosts.
I use the term climax loosely, because The Disappointments Room never comes together. That’s a shame, too, because so much more could have been done with the disappointments room itself. Miller’s script adheres too closely to the established “rules” of ghost stories and mental illness; instead of attempting to get viewers to question Dana’s sanity (it’s never really a question, especially considering the dozens of references to it and a lengthy visit with a therapist), the film would be better off psychically manipulating Dana into actually using the disappointments room for her child.
I’ll leave this review with a simple madlib, because the pun writes itself: The Disappointments Room is simply an utter __________.