Updated: Jun 1, 2023
A time not too long ago I latched onto high school or teen focused horror, this of course being when I myself attended high school. Now however horror movies that focus on a cast of teens usually makes me feel like I’m having a trend I don’t understand explained to me. I find myself pulled more towards young adult casts, especially main characters who are just starting out and still finding themselves, a horror of its own. This seems obvious, I can see myself or things about my life in the characters and mentally place myself into the scenarios they grapple with on screen. 1BR (2019) is a great example of what I look for, a woman named Sarah (played by Nicole Byron Bloom), moves to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of becoming a costume designer. Her plans hinge on getting into a design program and working as a temp at a law firm to make ends meet. She has moved without knowing anyone and hasn’t even found an apartment to rent in LA. This brings us to the main setting and plot driver of the movie, the apartment building (or rather community) Asilo Del Mar. Luckily our girl Sarah snags this apartment when the manager, Jerry (played by Taylor Nichols), takes a special interest in her during the open house. Just like that we are in the thick of it.
Upon Sarah moving into the apartment community she is invited to a BBQ where she is introduced to a myriad of characters by Miss Stanhope (played by Susan Davis), whom she helped when she first arrived at the apartments. Janice (played by Naomi Grossman) is Jerry’s wife and they have a daughter Natalie. Lester (played by Clayton Hoff), who lurks around in the shadows of the apartment complex wearing sunglasses that only have one shade. Last but not least there’s Esther (played by Earnestine Phillips) an accomplished doctor and her husband the lawyer. Everyone is nice enough but they are definitely off and something is amiss about their demeanor, too nice if you will.
The apartment community that originally comes across as welcoming, inviting and friendly with neighbors constantly out and about is actually a cult that initiates its members against their will through various forms of physical, mental, and emotional torture….yikes. The first night in the apartment Sarah is awoken by sounds of rattling pipes. Later on we find out that these are orchestrated by speakers from a control room by the leaders in the community as a part of breaking down potential initiates. Sarah can’t sleep and this causes her to be exhausted and experience brain fog at work, her co-worker Lisa (played by Celeste Sully) and her get closer and she suggests Sarah break her lease on her weird apartment and they get a place together. Sarah even blows off a dinner party thrown by her next door neighbor, Brian (played by Giles Matthey) to have dinner with Lisa.
Lisa is the exact opposite of Sarah, she is assertive and doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. Lisa’s life motto is “it’s my fucking life” which not only shocks but intrigues Sarah. Sarah on the other hand is meek and lets herself be walked over by others, especially her father who doesn’t believe in her dreams or aspirations to make it in LA. The night after Sarah and Lisa’s dinner she’s awoken again and comes to find her cat, that she is not allowed to have in the apartment and has received threats over, is in the oven burnt alive. As if that isn’t horrifying enough a man attacks her from behind and after a fight ensues she realizes it’s Brian. She makes it out of the apartment and into Esther’s arms only to find out that Esther is in on it and takes her back to her apartment. All of the neighbors have come out to witness this spectacle and even start to file into her apartment. Larry, the manager, is like no harm done and states that they are helping her and Esther mentions this is why they do the dinner party as it is less aggressive.
This begins her torture in an empty room where she spends days and nights in a stress position facing a wall breaking her down physically. In order to show how serious they are they have Lester come in and show her what happened when he resisted their methods, the removal of his eye. On one occasion when she collapses Brian and Larry come into the room and Brian nails her hands to the wall. Through their torture she is broken in all ways and eventually succumbs to their brainwash and assimilates into the community.
This cult, founded by Charles Ellerby, is all about a better way of life. Free from the obsessed and selfish world outside and that if they are strong enough and powerful enough they can heal the whole world. After Sarah earns status and trust in the community she is given tasks. One of which reveals that everyone in the community is being monitored via camera 24/7. She is also tasked with holding the eldest member's hand, Miss Stanhope, whom she has a close relationship with as she is suffocated to death due to no longer serving a purpose to the community. Miss Stanhope goes willingly but it’s still disturbing to watch.
Despite being all about caring for one another if one person is physically unable to play a role they are put to death. After being married off to Lester and having to make sure her father never returns to the apartments by verbally accosting him it is time to find another member. Sarah finds out that they watch the apartment open house, similar to the one she attended at the start of the movie, and select a member that fits some arbitrary criteria. They believe that those who have aspirations and dreams like being a successful actress or seamstress are selfish and therefore need to be fixed. Smoking, drinking, and I’m sure various other behaviors are also frowned upon and signs someone needs the fixing help of the cult.
Unfortunately for our girl Lisa she is the next victim. Lisa doesn’t go down without a fight though and upon her refusal to comply she is able to snap Sarah out of the brainwashing. In a jump scare that made me gasp and cover my mouth Lisa is shot by Jerry in the back of the head when they are on their way out of there. Lisa has Jerry’s gun after she stabs him to death and after a standoff ensues she makes it out of the apartment complex with the help and sacrifice of our boy Lester.
All that glitters is not gold however and when she gets out she realizes that every apartment complex on that street is just another Charles Ellerby cult identical to hers aside from name and architecture. Red alarms start going off on each of them and our exhausted protagonist laughs at the absurdity of this discovery. The camera pans to her clenching her fist and then to her running down the middle of the street with red alarm bell dawned buildings on either side of her.
In recent years there’s been a desire for community that has been lacking in part due to the emergence of technology and social media. There’s this notion that a time long ago is better and more preferable. I enjoyed that this movie takes that and flips it on its head. The longed after community is cultish and dangerous. The very neighbors that help Sarah and welcome her with open arms are the same ones that torture her and then smile in her face calling it help. They believe they are free from the restraints of the outside world but they are living within strict guidelines of what is and isn’t acceptable. There is no autonomy or free thinking, marriages are arranged for the purpose of procreation, and you are only as useful as your contribution to the overall community.
Aside from the gruesome physical tactics employed to keep members in line the mental and emotional manipulation and control is also scary to watch unfold. Breaking the spirit is just as horrifying as breaking the body. I liked the intersection of tangible and intangible atrocities the characters endure.
This movie was released on Netflix in April of 2020 at a time when all of our lives crumbled down in one way or another. I think the timing, though they could not have planned for the pandemic, is astute. We desperately craved community and connection and here is this horror movie that makes those very things dangerous and examined in a contrasting way to how we normally think of those concepts. I enjoyed the watch and only felt disengaged in some of the slower moments between action but that has more to do with my attention span than the film itself.
One criticism I have is that the pacing is a little off. The torture and induction to the cult happens very early on and there isn’t a lot of buildup between her moving in and then boom her cat being killed. I would’ve enjoyed some more tension so that when she is kidnapped and tortured her neighbors level of involvement is more shocking when revealed. Possibly some misdirects about who in the community is and isn’t involved and what exactly they’re involved in. I went in thinking that it might be some sort of paranormal portal of control and they would have had me shook if they played that up with the creaking sounds and jump scare misdirects before the reveal. When she is kidnapped I paused to get up and became shocked that we were only halfway through the movie, scratching my head as to what exactly the other half would be filled with if not what I described.
Would be interested if Netflix created a sequel to this that explores the other CDE owned properties in LA and what becomes of our girl Sarah. As the tagline suggests, being welcome in the neighborhood isn’t all that it’s made out to be.
Recommended score: 6/10