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Retro Review: THE FIFTH FLOOR (1980)

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THE FIFTH FLOOR
(US - 1980)

Directed by Howard Avedis. Written by Meyer Dolinsky. Cast: Bo Hopkins, Dianne Hull, Patti D'Arbanville, Sharon Farrell, John David Carson, Julie Adams, Robert Englund, Mel Ferrer, Anthony James, Pattie Brooks, Earl Boen, Betty Kean, Alice Nunn, Cathey Paine, Udana Power, Michael Berryman, Marie Marq, M.G. Kelly, Tracey Walter. (R, 90 mins)

A late-night cable fixture in the early '80s, THE FIFTH FLOOR has largely disappeared from view in the decades since. Just out on Blu-ray from Code Red (because physical media is dead) in a transfer that only acceptable but oddly appropriate given its exploitative nature, the film was just scuzzy enough for the perpetually shady Film Ventures International to release on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit over the spring and summer of 1980, but it's tamer than you might think, and it even aired on CBS in 1983. Its plot has several similarities with 1979's grungier HUMAN EXPERIMENTS and 1985's exponentially more tacky HELLHOLE, all three films combining staples of the women-in-prison potboiler with a quasi-SNAKE PIT tropes as a nice young woman thrown into a mental institution. After she suffers a seizure at a disco that's eventually determined to be caused by strychnine poisoning and considered by the ER doc to be a botched suicide attempt, college girl Kelly (Dianne Hull), who just broke up with her boyfriend Ronnie (PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW's John David Carson), is deemed a risk to herself and ordered to spend 72 hours in observation in the mental ward on the fifth floor, referred to as "Psycho City" by the other patients.






Distraught and unable to convince anyone that someone poisoned her and that she wasn't attempting suicide, Kelly is incredulously dismissed by everyone charged with her care, and no one--Ronnie, attending shrink Dr. Coleman (Mel Ferrer), head Nurse Hannaford (Julie Adams), and especially leering orderly Carl (an unhinged performance by Bo Hopkins)--seems very eager to hear her out, let alone release her. She makes friends with some of the other patients, like pregnant Cathy (Patti D'Arbanville), unstable Melanie (Sharon Farrell), who lost it after her husband's affair with a younger woman, and kooky Benny (Robert Englund), the fifth floor's resident class clown, but her defiant attitude keeps inevitably extending her stay. She also has to contend with the unwanted attention of Carl, who makes her shower while he watches and insists on soaping her back, and when she runs away, he tells Nurse Hannaford and Dr. Coleman that she grew violent and had paranoid breakdown, which forces Coleman to keep her confined for another 90 days.






THE FIFTH FLOOR was allegedly based on a true story, but that claim seems pretty suspect. Director Howard Avedis (THE TEACHER SCORCHY, MORTUARY, THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE) was no stranger to trashy B-movies before or after THE FIFTH FLOOR, and the film marked one of the rare big-screen scripting efforts by veteran TV scribe Meyer Dolinsky, whose journeyman career included stops on shows like BONANZA, THE OUTER LIMITS, WAGON TRAIN, DAKTARI, STAR TREK, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, HAWAII FIVE-0, and MARCUS WELBY, M.D. Though it's generally lumped in with the horror genre, THE FIFTH FLOOR is more of a suspense drama, closer in spirit to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST than anything inherently "scary." It was probably easy to sell it as a horror film ("Once the door closes here, it never opens!"), but if you remove some profanity, Hull's nudity and a surprisingly gory comeuppance for the villain, it could've easily been a made-for-TV movie. It's more uncomfortable than anything, especially with Hopkins' genuinely repellent performance, though even entertaining the notion that standards may have been lax 40 years ago compared to now, it's hard to believe any hospital would've kept this creep on the payroll. Avedis and Dolinsky also completely lose track of the whole "Who poisoned Kelly?" plot thread, addressing it in a throwaway line late in the film that should've gotten her released from the hospital weeks earlier but no one seems to be doing their job. It's possible that was the whole point (Adams' Nurse Hannaford clearly doesn't trust Carl, but Ferrer's Dr. Coleman is absolutely useless), but it's doubtful Avedis was crafting this as some kind of hard-hitting, SHOCK CORRIDOR-style statement.

Toledo, OH, 6/27/1980
The charms of THE FIFTH FLOOR lie mainly in nostalgia for its era and with its cast, which also includes such recognizable faces as Anthony James (the chauffeur in BURNT OFFERINGS), Earl Boen (the disbelieving police shrink in THE TERMINATOR), Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES), Tracey Walter ("Bob the Goon" in Tim Burton's BATMAN), and Alice Nunn (whose place in  pop culture is cemented thanks to her work as Large Marge in PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE) as fifth floor patients. Film Ventures somehow managed to corral the services of Casablanca Record & Filmworks (known primarily as a disco label thanks to Donna Summer and the Village People, but also the home of rock bands like Kiss and Angel) to handle the soundtrack, though the only performer they could get to contribute anything was Pattie Brooks, who just had a huge hit in 1978 with THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY's "After Dark" and is seen onscreen singing "Fly Away." THE FIFTH FLOOR has an appropriately grimy feel that's matched by Hopkins and the performance of Hull, if you can overlook her borderline Elaine Benes dance moves in the opening sequence. Born in 1949, she had a few prominent roles--as Kirk Douglas and Deborah Kerr's daughter in 1969's THE ARRANGEMENT, as Rose in 1975's ALOHA, BOBBY AND ROSE, and as John Savage's wife in 1979's THE ONION FIELD--but her career never took off. She has no IMDb credits after 1991 and her last big-screen role was as Mrs. Settigren in 1988's THE NEW ADVENTURES OF PIPPI LONGSTOCKING. THE FIFTH FLOOR was a minor hit at drive-ins and found a cult following on VHS and cable, but even the poster art did nothing to sell it as Hull's movie, since it's adorned with the image of distraught Sharon Farrell.




THE FIFTH FLOOR opening in Toledo, OH on 6/27/1980




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