Courtesy Dark Sky Films
Satanists may come on strong with pentagrams, candlelit rituals and blood sacrifices, but real-life cultists operate far more insidiously, luring in potential new members with sunshiny smiles and promises of health, happiness, and personal and professional fulfillment. They brainwash through self-help blather, and in 1BR, their devious methods are all the more unnerving for closely resembling those allegedly employed by both Scientology and NXIVM.
Writer/director David Marmor’s feature debut (premiering April 24 on VOD) isn’t a documentary, nor does it purport to be “inspired by a true story.” Nonetheless, it’s hard not to notice the parallels between its fictional tale and the accounts of survivors of Scientology and NXIVM, both of which claim public legitimacy while reportedly perpetrating all sorts of authoritarian mind-control measures on those foolish enough to sign up for their services. While 1BR isn’t scary on a horror-movie level—don’t expect to be particularly surprised by how things unfold, or to be startled by its more wannabe-suspenseful and gruesome moments—it understands the way cults break down—and then build up—their prey, exploiting individuals’ personal weaknesses, hopes and needs in order to gain adherents and further solidify and expand their own power.
1BR’s female in peril is fresh-faced single twentysomething Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom), who’s moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of being a clothing designer, much to the chagrin of her father (Alan Blumenfeld). Sarah doesn’t care what her dad has to say, since she’s still steaming over his affair with the nurse of her terminally ill mom, which has left their relationship frosty. The fact that, during a phone call, he voices concern about her ability to survive on her own—a thinly veiled bit of sexism—only further alienates Sarah, who spends her nights drawing sketches of outfits in her notebook, and her days toiling away at a temp job where she’s significantly less confident about standing up to her boss than is fiercely independent Lisa (Celeste Sully), with whom she becomes friends.
Tired of living in a dingy Hollywood motel, Sarah strikes pay dirt—or so she thinks—when she attends an open house at an apartment complex full of cheery and inviting multicultural folks. In an introductory first-person sequence, 1BR paints these residents as unnervingly friendly. At least initially, though, Sarah thinks she’s simply discovered the sort of close-knit community she craves. Sure, there’s weirdo Lester (Clayton Hoff), who stares at her from afar from behind glasses with one blackened-out lens. But most of these people are affable and welcoming, be it former movie star Edie Stanhope (Susan David)—an elderly woman who now stumbles about the property due to an undefined age-related malady—or BBQing manager Jerry (Taylor Nichols), who convinces her to rent.
All is not well in this outwardly idyllic urban outpost, however, and 1BR isn’t subtle about delivering ominous warning signs about trouble ahead. Despite being explicitly informed that no pets are allowed, Sarah sneaks in her cat Ginger, and in return for her disobedience, receives threatening messages scrawled on the complex’s pet policy form. Just as that overtly menacing gesture gets under Sarah’s skin, so too do her pipe’s loud, clanging noises leave her disturbed and exhausted. And even after decorating her place, she can’t quite stop thinking about the strange, blank light-switch plate that adorns one of her walls, nor the two spots on the same surface that appear to have been roughly plastered over, as if to cover up some prior mishap.
Would you believe that said marks spell future agony for innocent Sarah, whose only crime is desperately wanting the love, attention and loyalty of a devoted father figure? 1BR is far too blunt to properly hide any of its twists, most of them having to do with the ulterior motives of its seemingly chummy supporting players, including hunky Brian (Giles Matthey), for whom Sarah immediately falls. What it lacks in tact, however, it makes up for—to some extent—in unsettling detail, as Sarah [spoilers follow] soon falls victim to Jerry, Brian and the rest of her nondescript neighbors. They’re all acolytes of a cult that follow the teachings of late author Charles Ellerby (Curtis Webster), who promoted togetherness via the “four foundations”: selflessness, openness, acceptance, and security. Subscribing to those tenets is the key to ultimate contentment, although convincing newbies like Sarah that that’s the case requires drastic measures—namely, forcing her to stand, for hours on end, with her hands against the aforementioned spots on her wall.
And when she can’t maintain that position any longer, Jerry helps keep her in place—with nails through her palms.
Such physical abuse is married to mental torment, which comes in the form of belligerent strobe lights and polygraph-test interviews about the intimate aspects of her (sexual) life, taking a page out of Scientology’s auditing handbook. It’s a process of dehumanizing Sarah in every imaginable way, and then convincing her that the only way to escape this misery—and to achieve the emotional and spiritual satisfaction she desires—is to succumb to the cult. These methods, along with Jerry’s demand that Sarah reject her father (and all other outsiders), are also reminiscent of the experiences reported by ex-Scientologists. The fact that Sarah is literally branded by Jerry, on the other hand, is a direct shout-out to NXIVM. 1BR understands that cults use severe punishment and demoralization to crush recruits’ spirits, the better to then make them susceptible to their promises of safety, success, and bliss.
Those pledges are false, of course, and 1BR is ultimately the story of a young woman struggling to break free from chains of bondage that are as internal as they are external. There’s no great psychological depth to its portrait, nor is there any great excitement to its climactic confrontations and resolutions. Yet in its dramatization of authentic cult tactics, Marmor’s film locates, and censures, the strategic means by which fanatical groups victimize not only with violence, but also by stripping away a person’s sense of self-worth and autonomy, and replacing them with comforting group-think doctrines of isolation and conformity. More than its conventional thriller-esque incidents, it’s that critique which proves most memorably horrifying.