What happens when a horror director takes on a two-set stage play? He wins. A low-action, high-tension thriller made up of stories within stories.
When I watched Blue & Malone with my son the other day, he asked me why it was included in a horror film festival programme. I told him they sometimes screen something different if they think their audience will enjoy it. I’m convinced that’s the case with The Oak Room too, essentially a modern noir drama and not a horror at all. It’s made up of a handful of stories; but I don’t mean to suggest it is an anthology film either: each story complements another, and in the end, they all belong together too.
Steve (RJ Mitte, Breaking Bad) goes back to his home town after three years away, stopping at the old watering ground to pick up his father’s ashes. The manager of the bar, Paul (Peter Outerbridge, ReGenesis, V-Wars), is rightly angry that Steve waited so long, especially as Paul had ended up paying for the funeral costs. Steve somehow manages to calm down this antagonism by offering a story – “worth a thousand words” – by way of a deposit on his debts; a story that contains another, just like the one Paul tells in return. Thus, the film appears to be something like John Dahl’s Red Rock West married with the Thousand and One Nights.
The Oak Room is the name of a bar – not the bar Paul is tending, but the one where Steve’s stories take place – and the two similar sets with similar people lend themselves to a theatrical interpretation. Or so I thought, before discovering it was the other way around: Peter Genoway wrote the screenplay based on his own stage play. So of course, it’s dialogue-heavy, but that isn’t a problem at all: we’re listening in on two guys (at a time) at a bar. And if you’re wondering where the tension comes in, it comes from the soft connections between each story, and the listener’s uneasy reaction as things progress. The acting is top class throughout, whether on the part of the talker or the listener. If I had to pick out one actor to highlight, it would be Nicholas Campbell, who played Steve’s late father: his was only a brief part, but he showed such anguish my whole body felt heavy just watching (especially considering the different views that emerged about the character’s death).
Director Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Let Her Out) is familiar to many horror fans by now, and they may be surprised to see him deliver something different; but his skills are clearly transferable across genres, bringing a rich atmosphere, suspense, and care taken in respect of what the audience should see (and hear). He is telling Genoway’s story here, as Paul and Steve tell their subjects’ stories, and the film is full of lessons in emotional manipulation, “goosing the truth” and the art of storytelling in general. I loved the way the characters all seemed to acknowledge they are playing parts in a story themselves, relishing the “dark and stormy night”, the far-fetched twists and turns, and especially the moments when things get violent and almost unbelievable.
The film as a whole may be about storytelling, but the individual stories (sorry, bet you’re tired of that word by now) within it seem to be about purpose, regret, and mortality. I think I’ll remember most the one about the motorist who doesn’t look at his passenger and the one about the baby pig. Neither of those stories in themselves had anything to do with the overall arc, but the people and the themes they touched on certainly did. The Oak Room is a low-action thriller but very intelligently constructed.
The Oak Room had its UK premiere at Grimmfest, October 2020.
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