Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The 4th Floor: Special Edition (1999)
Studio Line: A-Pix - People are dying to live in this building.

Jane Emelin (Lewis) has never lived alone and decides to move into an apartment by herself. At first glance, the neighborhood is enchanting and the neighbors friendly, but things quickly become bizarre. Something evil lurks in the floorboards and the walls and no one believes her fears. Terrifying sounds, massive infestations of mice and roaches turn her happy home into a horrifying hell-hole. Now it's a matter of life or death to get out before it's too late.

Director: Josh Klausner
Cast: Juliette Lewis, William Hurt, Shelley Duvall, Artie Lange
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1, standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles Spanish; single side - dual layer; 16 chapters; rated R; 90 min.; $24.98; street date 7/18/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by director Josh Klauser, editor Tricia Cooke, production designer Timothy Galvin; Alternate Ending; Video Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/See Text/C+

Moving into a new apartment is usually a crap shoot. I've lived in enough different places to know how strongly my neighbors influence my happiness, and I've gone through the gamut. Happily, at least all of the problems I've experienced revolved around noise issues, like the guy upstairs who walked too heavily and really shook things up as he trod across the floor.

As such, I've never gone through any true neighbor nightmares, and one viewing of The 4th Floor puts things in perspective; anyone irritated by their building-mates should give this flick a gander to see just how bad things could be.

At its heart, The 4th Floor is a Hitchcockian thriller. Young professional Jane (Juliette Lewis) moves into an apparently fantastic - and rent controlled - New York apartment bequeathed to her by her dead aunt. Right off the bat things seem a bit odd as the story provides a nearly-endless supply of suspicious and odd characters to spook the audience. There's a nosy and strangely suspicious "house mother" in Martha Stewart (Shelley Duvall), a secretive upstairs neighbor who Jane is warned to avoid (Austin Pendleton), a mentally disturbed basement resident, and even some creepy residents of a complex across the way who Jane witnesses Rear Window-style.

Most upsetting of all, however, is Jane's downstairs neighbor, an old lady who's apparently a virtual shut-in. She quickly makes life difficult for Jane as she constantly provides disembodied complaints about Jane's various activities. As the film progresses, these intrusions escalate and the situation becomes very creepy for Jane.

I don't want to go into much detail since it could ruin some surprises. Frankly, I feel that while The 4th Floor works hard to create a laundry list of suspicious characters, the actual culprit becomes quite obvious about halfway through the movie. This renders the film's surprise ending rather anti-climactic, but even with that flaw, the story provides a surprising amount of fun chills and scares. Director Josh Klausner creates a tense and eerie atmosphere that pervades the whole film and kept me much more interested than the story probably warranted; The 4th Floor does nothing new, but its execution seems strong.

Another surprise came from the performance of Lewis. I've never cared for her work; at best, I've tolerated her, while I usually simply can't stand her. However, she offers some good work in this film. She appears appropriately strong but also remains vulnerable; we don't see her as a sucker, as is usually the case with female protagonists in this kind of tale, but she never seems so tough that she overwhelms the action. Lewis provides a nice balance and makes the character real and likable.

While I've always enjoyed William Hurt's performances, he doesn't have much to do here; despite his prominent billing on the package, Hurt is just a supporting character in The 4th Floor. He's perfectly adequate with what he has to do, but it's a minor role that doesn't give him much of an opportunity to shine.

Really, the film is Lewis' to win or lose, and she makes the most of it. The 4th Flooris a minor movie, but it makes for an enjoyable little experience. Although the plot eventually becomes predictable, the storytelling is strong enough to carry it through the second half with little loss of momentum. I wouldn't pick The 4th Floor over actual Hitchcock films like Psycho or The Birds, but if you're in the mood for a modern nod to the master, it's a fun piece.

The DVD:

The 4th Floor appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was rated for this review. Overall the picture looks quite good, with very few problems on display.

Sharpness seemed very crisp and accurate throughout the movie, with virtually no noticeable instances of any softness. Sometimes DVDs achieve this through artificial edge enhancement, but that didn't seem to be the case here; I detected no evidence of moiré effects or jagged edges. The print itself appeared clear for the most part; there's a tiny amount of grain, and I also witnessed some occasional white speckles and a little black grit, but nothing severe.

Colors appeared subdued but accurate and nicely-saturated, with no distortion or noise related to the hues. Black levels looked adequate, though they could have used a little more intensity, and shadow detail seemed similarly decent but not exceptional; I had no problem discerning aspects of the image during low-light sequences, but the mild flatness of the dark tones made these scenes look a bit murkier than I'd like. Nonetheless, The 4th Floor offers a strong picture as whole.

More questionable is the film's Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack. As I'll relate, the quality of it seems quite good, but one major flaw ruins the party: the front right and left channels have been reversed! As I watched the movie, I initially noticed that the right side of the soundfield appeared very dominant; an imbalance caused the image to sound off-center. I actually got out of my seat - not a welcome task for a lazy sod like myself - and put my ear to the left speaker to make sure it still worked. It did, but not a whole lot of activity revolved around it.

As The 4th Floor progressed, more sound emanated from the left, but it seemed inappropriate. There's not a lot of directional audio in the movie, but eventually I heard enough to convince me the channels were reversed. For example, one scenes shows Hurt and Lewis as they cook; although the kitchen's clearly on one side of the image, the appropriate sounds come from the other! The poor balance between channels would have been bad enough, but these reversed speakers really harm the soundtrack.

That's too bad, because had the channels been appropriate, I would have given the soundtrack a good rating; the overall atmosphere is nice, and the quality seems strong. As far as I could tell, the surrounds don't display any discrete audio; they offer strong reinforcement of music and effects but I couldn't hear any unique sound in either of the rear speakers so I was unable to detect of the channel-swap affected them as well. However, the atmosphere appeared appropriately creepy and even considering the distraction of the reversed channels, the mix sounded nicely involving.

Sound quality seemed quite positive. Dialogue always was natural and distinct, with no concerns related to intelligibility. Music was bold and clear and despite the lack of dedicated subwoofer channel, it packed a decent low-end punch. Effects sounded clean and realistic and also displayed some solid bass at times. Unfortunately, none of this makes up for a very flawed soundtrack that reverses at least two channels.

In regard to supplemental features, The 4th Floor makes for an odd package. On one hand, we find some decent extras, but on the other, the disc appears awfully basic. No time code shows as you watch the movie, and although the DVD includes chapter stops and a "scene selections" menu, there are no numbers for the chapters; the display just shows "play" while the movie runs, which is a really cheap solution.

Despite that, we do find some supplemental features. The DVD contains an audio commentary from director Josh Klausner, editor Tricia Cooke, and production designer Timothy Galvin. Although the case makes it appear as though there may be three separate commentaries, there aren't; only one appears, in which all three participants were recorded together.

Overall, this is a pretty strong track. Unsurprisingly, Klausner dominates the proceedings, but the other two chime in with some good information as well. The speakers give us some nice details about the production, especially in regard to the challenges of making a low-budget film (and one that replicates New York in Canada to boot). These folks are more than willing to knock their own product, which is a tendency not seen enough in these commentaries; too often they're just happy-fests that provide no sign of beliefs that the finished film is anything other than perfect. The participants seem proud of their movie but they'll make some fun of it as well, and the whole commentary is entertaining and informative.

Next is an alternate ending. This runs for four minute and 20 seconds and it's really just an extended version of the movie's final conclusion; it provides a little extra exposition but adds nothing revelatory. It also doesn't alter the ending in any way; it's not like something such as Clerks, which features an alternate conclusion that really changes the tone.

Finally, the DVD includes a slew of trailers. We get the "video trailer" for The 4th Floor plus its "alternate trailer". There are also a bunch of promos for other A-Pix releases: Dance With the Devil, Phantom of the Opera, Six Ways to Sunday, Razorblade Smile, Oxygen, Relax It's Just Sex, and Around the Fire.

Although The 4th Floor will never be considered a classic, it offers a fairly tense and enjoyable little thriller. The DVD itself provides a good picture, some decent extras, and clear sound, but the latter is badly hurt by a mastering flaw that reverses two channels. That last factor makes recommendations difficult; I enjoyed The 4th Floor and think the audio problem isn't the end of the world, but I definitely wouldn't espouse a purchase of the DVD with such a major error in place. You may want to give it a rental and see what you think.

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