The Apartment Complex
With the commercial failure of “The Mangler,” Tobe Hooper had finally been permanently banished to the world of television and direct-to-video cinema. Following the 1995 release of that movie, Hooper directed two episodes of “Nowhere Man” and an episode each of “Dark Skies,” “Perversions of Science,” and “Prey.” Many of these shows were produced in the aftermath of “The X-Files” repopularizing spooky TV. So it’s no surprised that Hooper’s next feature length credit would also be made for television. “The Apartment Complex” was produced for Showtime, the same network that aired “Body Bags” five years prior. Though easy to overlook, the humble film may actually be the best thing Hooper has been involved with in years.
Stan Warden is a young man who recently moved to California for education. Pursuing a psychology degree, and wondering what he’ll write his thesis about, he finds money running low. So when he sees an ad in the paper for a position as the manger of an apartment complex, he immediately takes the job. As soon as he enters the complex, he finds the place off-putting. The residents are strange, including a homeless man living outside the building, a pair of models, a man who claims to be a CIA agent, a would-be psychic, and others. After pulling a bloated dead body out of the filthy pool, Stan suddenly finds himself being pursued by police as a murderer. He also begins to wonder if he’s going insane, all by himself or because the apartment is driving him crazy.
The most consistent directorial trademark throughout Tobe Hooper’s career has been his interest in expressive set design. Though it’s never really gone away, it’s usually harder to spot in his television credits. This isn’t the case with “The Apartment Complex.” The landlord being named Dr. Caligari is only the most obvious shout-out to Expressionistic cinema. The swimming pool, an important plot location, has an odd, triangular shape. The buildings jut out at off-center angles. The hallways even directly recreate “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s” angular set design. The individual rooms are often packed with small details, granting a lot of personality to the room.
While its script is comedic and its story is often morbid, “The Apartment Complex’s” tone often borders film noir. Stan frequently narrates the story, contemplating his situation, his slipping sanity, and whether or not he can ever figure out his thesis. This narration is, more often then not, very distracting. it often feels like it was added to the movie after the fact. However, it points towards the movie’s noir aspirations. The photography often drapes the characters in expressive shadows. Mark Adler’s score is filled with boozy saxophone and waltzing brass, which also recalls noir. While more a goof on the neo-noir movement then a proper entry in it, “The Apartment Complex” gleefully adds this to its tonal mix.
As an thespian, Chad Lowe is not especially well regarded. He’s most well known for having a more famous and successful older brother. (Or maybe for being Hilary Swank’s ex-husband.) However, as Stan Warden, Lowe gives a solid performance. He’s funny, often responding to the story’s unexpected turns with bafflement. He mines decent laughs from the character’s confusion. He also sells the affection Stan develops for the apartment’s tenants in time. Lowe ultimately proves to be compelling, calmly guiding the viewer through the movie’s goofball world.
Lowe also has decent romantic chemistry with Fay Masterson as Alice, the tenant that eventually wins his heart. Despite the movie’s heightened world, Masterson is one of the more grounded characters. She’s game, leaping into another actor’s arm and spending a portion of the story in a skimpy nightgown. Patrick Warburton plays her boyfriend, Morgan. Warburton has a hugely affable comedic presence, often using his baritone voice to get big laughs from simple lines. In “The Apartment Complex,” Warburton plays a bully. He beats up any man who he thinks is interesting in his girlfriend. Late in the film, it’s implied that he beats her too. While an unpleasant character, Warburton’s talent goes a long ways towards making Morgan seem off-beat and quirky, instead of just outright unlikable.
“The Apartment Complex” fills even the furthest corners of its ensemble cast with likable characters. Tyra Banks seemingly plays a version of herself, an up-and-coming model living in the low rent housing. Banks has some okay comedic chops. Her roommate is a female body double, who introduces herself to Stan by beating him up. The detectives who harass Stan are played by Ron Canada and Miguel Sandoval, both of whom get some laughs. Jon Polito appears as Dr. Caligari, happily playing up the character’s cheapskate personality. Obba Babatunde plays Chett, the homeless man, providing some likable unhinged elements to his few scenes.
There’s a free-floating absurdist streak throughout “The Apartment Complex” which manifests itself in unexpected ways. At one point, Stan receives a strange package. Inside is a boa constrictor. It escapes the box, slithers into the complex’s plumbing, and pops up during important times. After the dead body is fished out of the pool, somebody slips sunglasses onto his face and cigarettes into his lips. It seems likely to me that “The Apartment Complex” was meant to launch a series. Many of these elements are left unexplained, probably with the intention of building upon them in an on-going story line. Since that TV show never appeared, these dangling plot threads instead add to the movie’s earnestly quirky, goofy atmosphere.