One of Us: "1BR" a smart, deceptive little horror movie

1BR (2020)
90 min.
Release Date: April 24, 2020 (Digital & On Demand)

Relocating to the City of Angels on a whim is nerve-wracking enough, but that’s only a sliver of the full scope in writer-director David Marmor’s effective feature directorial debut “1BR.” Deeply creepy and disturbing, the film tips its hand in the early going—evil is hidden in plain sight—but one actually doesn’t know that it has until later. With a tight, deceptive script and shooting mostly in one location, Marmor makes the most out of every resource he has to craft this smart, nifty little horror movie. For the optimal element of surprise, one is recommended to just go into “1BR” blind.

Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) is a timid but ambitious young woman who’s ready to build a new life in Los Angeles. She has a temp job at a law office, but her dream is to be a costume designer. Leaving and distancing herself from her narcissistic father, Sarah finds a friendly apartment community in Asilo del Mar with an available one-bedroom that’s perfect for her (and her cat that she sneaks in, despite the no-pet policy). Overjoyed to hear that her application is approved, Sarah signs the lease, moves in, and gets invited to a poolside barbecue to meet all of the tenants. The landlord, Jerry (Taylor Nichols), and his wife, Janice (Naomi Grossman), are so welcoming, as are the elderly Edie Stanhope (Susan Davis) and cute, flirtatious neighbor Brian (Giles Matthey). On her first night in her new home, she’s kept up by noisy plumbing and then she receives a not-so-nice note regarding her stowaway pet. Unfortunately, the sleep-deprived Sarah has her blinders on when it comes to the diabolical intentions that are in store for her. 

Something is a little off about Asilo del Mar from the very start of “1BR,” but it is deliberate and not so off as to render Sarah a complete dolt. Under the guise of too-good-to-be-true happiness, a sinister plot in Pavlovian conditioning is already in play, and where the film leads is never predictable. Even when one sees the light and understands what is actually going on, the tension still never ceases. As the viewer vicariously joins Sarah in her living nightmare, the film keeps moving in unexpected directions that are shocking and sobering. A key scene involving a nail being hammered into someone's hand, stigmata-style, teeters on "torture porn," but director David Marmor makes a painful impact even with the power of suggestion over explicit violence.

Nicole Brydon Bloom is earnest and emotionally available as Sarah, a naïve, impressionable ingenue who gains more of a backbone as her living situation worsens. Sarah must comply and give up all sense of agency in order to survive, but Bloom has a way of showing the wheels in her mind turning, even when trying not to clue in any of the antagonists on where she stands. Taylor Nichols is appropriately persuasive as landlord Jerry; Susan Davis is memorable as faded Hollywood actress Edie/Miss Stanhope; and Celeste Sully lends spark as aggressive go-getter Lisa, a co-worker at Sarah’s workplace who becomes her one true friend outside of the apartment community.

“1BR” is an unnerving stress-test, and sticking it out all the way until the chillingly evocative final shot is rewarding. If there’s any disappointment in the modestly budgeted production, Ronen Landa’s piano score is of the stock, TV-movie variety, as if the orchestrations don’t always match the action. Overly welcoming close-knit communities haven’t felt this frightening in a while, and perhaps “1BR” would make a damn good companion piece with 2012’s criminally overlooked “Entrance” and 2016’s “The Invitation,” two slow-burns that deserve to be praised more often.

Grade: B