Sarah tries to start anew in LA, but her neighbours are not what they seem.
Really, I would always be suspicious of a rental advertised as both luxury and affordable, but I’m an old cynic.
For the timid Sarah in David Marmor’s expertly-paced horror – estranged from her own family, newly arrived in LA and desperate to make friends – it seems like a dream come true. Even the no pets clause isn’t a problem, as she smuggles in her pet ginger tom Giles.
It’s a city with a history of cults. But her new neighbours are warm and friendly, constantly recommending a book to her that spells out their vision. Called The Power of Community, written by the now-dead behavioural psychologist Charles D. Ellerby, she eventually discovers it could easily be retitled The Four Habits of Highly Conforming People, but it’s a long and bloody process of realisation.
The four pillars that all residents are expected to live by are both lovely and sinister: selflessness (no agency), openness (no secrets), acceptance (of punishment, mainly) and security (you can’t escape). It’s the inverse of what we claim to want from a relationship but also what many people find themselves trapped in.
The book is a bible to them, with many of her neighbours possessing the zeal of the convert. And that’s not the only religious imagery in Apartment 1BR, as Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) discovers after she has tried and failed to leave.
Some residents we only see at group events, or when they emerge like ants, summoned by their leader to deal with another recalcitrant victim. Some are always out front: Esther (Earnestine Phillips), the top doctor married to a top lawyer; Brian (Giles Matthey), the friendly, handsome guy literally next door; Jerry (Taylor Nichols), the manager of the complex; and Edie (Susan Davis), the glamorous, elderly ex-actress, now retired. Others skulk in the shadows: Lester (Clayton Hoff) wears an eyepatch on his glasses and his ear is mashed up.
At first they just seem kind and friendly, looking out for each other. But soon Sarah is being kept awake all night by clanking and scraping noises, paring away at her already fragile defences.
Marmor wrote as well as directed, and he includes enjoyable nods to other films: The Stepford Wives, though this adds some community spirit and removes the docility; Logan’s Run, though Apartment 1BR is decidedly more generous on timings; and even last year’s Vivarium, which thoroughly warned us off an identikit, inescapable suburbia – easy to enter of your own free will, impossible to leave (until the kids have left home anyway).
What raises Apartment 1BR above many other “help! My nice neighbours are a cult!”-type movies is the highlighting of the seductiveness and sheer relief in succumbing to the cosiness of the echo chamber where opinions are never challenged and you know you’re accepted.
Marmor avoids it himself though – by forcing us to confront the lure of conformity as well as its ugliness and dangers, he paints a fresh picture of old themes.
Sarah resolves to leave, and get an apartment with new work colleague Lisa (Celeste Sully), a woman who is always prepared to set her boundaries. Her mantra, she tells the timid Sarah, desperate to belong, is “It’s my fucking life”.
But somehow her new apartment friends have found out about Giles. A pet policy reminder is pushed under her door with “Some people are allergic, you selfish bitch!” scrawled across it.
When it comes to pets, Marmor seems to be cut from the same directorial cloth as the men who made John Wick. Giles’s punishment is horrendous but has a certain horrific irony to it, considering the pet-free and smoke-free nature of the building, as she’s woken by her beeping smoke alarm to discover his fate. She hardly has time to resister her shock and devastation before she’s grabbed by a figure dressed in black, and imprisoned in a boarded-up room.
The tortures are part psychological, part physical and part musical, as terrible songs are piped into the sealed room where she’s kept.
The long process by which people are broken down and then rebuilt in the psychological image of everyone else is clearly well-honed, though home-made. Their weapons can be found in any garage and on any cheesy radio show.
It’s only much later that we find out whether Sarah truly buys in to her new reality, or has doubts, or is entirely faking it while looking for an escape (Brydon Bloom is really too much of a blank canvas; at times it makes Sarah intriguing but it also makes it hard for us to care about her).
The residents may look diverse but their opinions are not, and the founder is an old, white, dead dude. They claim to be her new family and the language they use is that of exasperated but kindly parents: “It’s for your own good. Someday you’ll understand and you’ll thank me”. Though while I merely tell my children to eat their vegetables – an admittedly appalling imposition when you’re 7 – Sarah’s tortures are more literal.
The fishbowl-like existence in Sarah’s apartment complex, with all the apartments looking out over the central courtyard, echoes how communities can become twisted: being watched, a reversion to groupthink, the calling out and ostracisation of those who refuse to submit to an ever-narrowing idea of what is considered acceptable opinion. Whether on Twitter or in Sarah’s apartment complex, when ideas take hold the madness of (very small) crowds can hold disproportionate power.
While the ideas behind Apartment 1BR aren’t new, they’re due regular reminders. And it’s certainly tense – the scenes where Sarah is tortured into submission had me on tenterhooks, though it’s not exploitative. We find out with her what the process and punishments will be. It’s gruesome at times but I’ve seen far bloodier stories. One of the most chilling scenes is actually when Sarah is shown a whole classroom of children being brainwashed.
More generally, Apartment 1BR (known as 1BR – one bedroom apartment – in the US) seems like a plea to stop locking ourselves away with people just like us, whether it’s living in gated communities, or driving everywhere. Sometimes it’s imposed on us (COVID-19 has kept many of us indoors) and sometimes we gravitate towards it, gradually bringing the shutters down on our interactions with the outside world.
Apartment 1BR is available on digital in the UK and on digital / DVD / blu-ray in the US
Read my article Let’s go into Apartment 1BR for more (warning: it’s very spoilery)
Watch the trailer now: