Well, that was one of the more messed up films I’ve seen in quite some time. I’m talking about the 2019 film 1BR, directed by David Marmor, in his directorial debut. It doesn’t help that cults freak me out.
The basic premise of the film is that Sarah (played by Nicole Bloom, who is also not only in a feature film for the first time, but the lead) moves into a Los Angeles one-bedroom apartment, with the promise and hope of starting fresh after the death of her mother to cancer. She is somewhat estranged from her father because the father cheated on her mother while she was dying … with the nurse, no less.
However, this isn’t a normal apartment complex. From the moment Sarah gets there, the “conditioning” into the cult that runs the apartment complex begins. The pipes are rattling. It’s difficult for her to sleep. The cat she snuck into the complex against the rules is killed horrifically inside an oven.
But even before the conditioning and the crap hit the fan with the cat being killed, there was something overly “off” about the apartment complex guests. That is, they were nice in that way where too nice can come off creepy. Where being too helpful all of the time can come off as oppressive in its own way.
And Sarah is sort of meek and timid. We see early on that she has a hard time standing up to her dad and a hard time standing up for herself against her boss at a temporary call center job. Thrusting somebody into this situation is rough.
Once the crap hits the fan with the cat, the real conditioning, i.e., torture, begins. When she tries to escape from Brian (played by Giles Matthey), who she thought was cute, Sarah learns it isn’t one or two people at the apartment complex who are psycho. The entire complex’s residents are part of the cult and have previously been “conditioned.” Although Brian was a fun subversion because Lester (played by Clayton Hoff) was being set up as the creepy guy and Sarah was scared of him.
Sarah is made to stand arms stretched out against a wall, staring at it for days on end while loud music blares. That’s rather textbook torture. She also learns that the cult leaders have cut her off from all contact with the outside world, which begs the question, how does this community sustain itself? Nobody is allowed to leave without express permission and with the primary cult leader allowing them to leave. So, again, how are they feeding themselves? Buying new items? Sustaining themselves?
But nonetheless, the torture ratchets up in a gross way when they stigmata Sarah by nailing both hands to the wall to keep her in place.
Over time, they let Sarah out, but the conditioning continues. They let her see that surveillance cameras, with the leaders watching, are set up everywhere, even in the bathroom. Watching everything. And they continue to subject her to a lie detector to see if she genuinely wants to stay at the community, her “home.”
At this point in the film, I thought it could go either of two ways. Either she’s fooling them and is looking for the right moment to break out or she truly has become brainwashed and will help them brainwash the next “tenant.”
In what the cult people think is the ultimate test of whether Sarah is genuine or not, her father has flown across the country to see what the heck is going on. It’s been at least two months since she disappeared off the map. But Sarah knows that if she can’t convince him to go away and never come back, they will kill him. So, Sarah is brutal to him to save his life. He doesn’t know that of course and is devastated. That scene was hard to watch.
After that moment, Sarah learns her role in the cult is to be Lester’s new wife after his died of cancer. Lester is actually nice to her by giving her back her sewing machine and telling her how hard he’s struggled against the cult, too. Then a new tenant is brought in, which turns out to be Sarah’s former friend and coworker, Lisa (played by Celeste Sully). The moment of truth comes, as Sarah is asked to play the role of the “friend” to help condition Lisa, just as Miss Stanhope (played by Susan Davis), had previously conditioned her by being her “friend.”
At first, it seems like they went with the latter option: Sarah is brainwashed. That is until Jerry (played by Taylor Nichols), the main cult leader, comes in and decides they are just going to kill Lisa. That’s when Sarah finds her moxie and stabs Jerry with a screwdriver. Unfortunately, that didn’t kill him and Jerry shoots and kills Lisa as they escape. But Sarah is able to wrestle the gun away from him after killing him with the screwdriver.
Sarah finds out that Jerry also has the community’s brandished mark behind his left ear and the stigmata hands, aka somebody had conditioned him, too.
She tries to escape, but the entire community is running after her trying to thwart her. Brian steps up to her and says they can’t let her leave. She points the gun at him. He stupidly thinks she won’t shoot. She does. But still, one of the community members is able to grab Sarah right before she buzzes her way out of the door.
I’m clinching my hands at that point. COME ON, SARAH! I WANT YOU TO SURVIVE!
And in another cool moment, Lester grabs the gun, with the community thinking he’ll shoot Sarah and instead, he shoots the community member holding Sarah, allowing her to escape. Lester turned out to be the nice guy! Then Lester kills himself.
As Sarah is fleeing down the street with a bloody face, she sees other apartment complexes run by the same “company” as the one she fled, meaning, more apartment complexes are run by cults. Alarms began blaring from those apartment complexes up and down the street.
Sarah clenches her fists and keeps running. To paraphrase her newfound mantra from Lisa, “This is my f*cking life.”
Aside from those last 10 seconds with various apartment complexes being revealed as also cultish — I absolutely believe a cult could form in one apartment complex, as cults happen in real life, but that many? Now you’re being silly — I thought this was a really creepy, unsettling film.
I saw some criticisms of Bloom’s “wooden” acting, but I thought she played both timid and someone pretending to be brainwashed well.
Overall, if you’re looking for a worthwhile film in the horror cult subgenre, give this a look.