This article previously appeared on Crossfader.
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Hotels are a strange universal symbol. No other space presents itself as a pristine oasis in unfamiliar territory, yet simultaneously invites the complete abandonment of our better manners. The temporary nature of these propped-up habitats incidentally creates a realm of infinite possibilities, but the horrors that arise in such realms arise in equal number. The Duplass brothers seek to capture the “mundane magic” of the average American hotel, and have said in interviews that we should expect ROOM 104 to hop between genres rather than persistently try to spook us like THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Despite that promise, the first episode feels like something right out of Rod Serling’s old-school horror series, throwing innocent babysitter Meg (Melonie Diaz) into the fray with the precocious Ralph (Ethan Kent) and his sinister alter ego Ralphie (Gavin Kent).
Structurally, this episode is about as standard as they come. Tension builds for the first two-thirds by establishing a wholesome caretaker/child relationship between Meg and Ralph, and by giving us whispers of the evil that reveals itself through a macabre twist in the latter third. By-the-book horror storytelling with no room for subplots, commentary, or other frills, “Ralphie” delivers seat squirms and sweaty brows at a ruthlessly efficient pace. The evil that dwells in the bathroom hangs heavy throughout the first 20 minutes before explosively destroying whatever hope for a happy ending remained.
If the parent is weeping when you show up, maybe reconsider how badly you need $80
The tension of most scenes comes from Meg not being able to see the obvious red flags, but the situation seems dangerous to the audience not because we have more information than Meg—we never actually see the bathroom—but because we know how the genre works and that the bizarre behavior that Meg perceives as childish shenanigans actually portends a great danger. Meg thus avoids coming across as reckless or dumb like most horror movie victims, and instead plays as a sympathetic though overly devoted babysitter.
What struck me most about the finale was how much suspense was created without heavy reliance on gore or supernatural visual elements. No, it’s never quite explained who or what Ralphie exactly is, but from what we can tell he’s just a sadistic little boy that either killed Ralph itself or tricked Meg into doing that for him. The visuals themselves hold very little tension, but thanks in large part to the chilling score this episode left me noticeably shook.
To be fair, twin children leave me shook regardless of context
While largely enjoyable, a few mistakes stuck out to me. I’m not sure what level of commitment y’all expect from babysitters, but I’d expect that most sitters would start blowing up their client’s phone the moment they were forced to stay later than expected. Underused cell phones are a leading cause of horror movie character deaths, but I rarely give exceptions to cliches just because they’re standbys of the genre. An easy solution would have been a dead battery, or perhaps just a little more realistic communication from Ralph’s father. Who doesn’t tell the babysitter that they’re running late? The only otherl issue is an overuse of blurry shots near the end; the dilution of the final horrific images conveyed Meg’s disorientation well enough, but was used to the point of exhaustion.
ROOM 104 looks to me like a fun, weightless anthology that wants to focus on quality storytelling in easily digestible chunks rather than today’s status quo of gigantic narratives and characters span seasons. I can’t assure that every episode will pop the way “Ralphie” does—such is the fickle nature of anthologies. But from what I can tell, the Duplass brothers have created a series that harkens back to a time when we watched TV for fun and not out of some strange sense of obligation; episodes meant to be enjoyed and forgotten rather than studied and dissected. This likely won’t make too many best-of lists come next December, but it is worth your time regardless.
ROOM 104 airs on HBO on Fridays