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Review: “Apartment Zero” (1988)

Apartment_ZeroJack Carney (Hart Bochner) considers himself something of a Renaissance Man, able to do what needs to be done — however strange the task — with a pinch of flair. “I should have been a chiropractor,” he jokes to his roommate Adrian (Colin Firth). Problem is, he uses that line after he cracks a dead woman’s back to fit her body inside a trunk. That Jack, what a jokester. And such a showman to boot.

Viewers, gird thy loins for a venture into the murky world of this beguiling sociopath in Martin Donovan’s “Apartment Zero,” the most unbelievably tense and profoundly unnerving thriller to slip past everyone in 1988. Donovan, who cowrote the screenplay with “Jurassic Park” writer David Koepp, creates a deliberate and slow exploration of Jack, a drifter who charms his way into the life of socially awkward loner Adrian LeDuc, who runs a failing revival theater in late 1980s-era Buenos Aires, and everyone who lives in LeDuc’s building. The unknown circumstances surrounding Jack’s arrival and his disturbing ability to play all things to all people form the sticky heart of “Apartment Zero,” and it’s not long before we find ourselves snared in that complicated web.

Adrian, too, finds himself swept up in the inescapable mystery of Jack, an amiable, handsome stranger who shows up on Adrian’s doorstep looking to rent a room. Since running his crumbling theater has emptied his bank account, Adrian agrees, though not without hesitation — he’s an emotional shut-in who despises his prying neighbors, particularly Margaret (Dora Bryan) and Mary Louise (Liz Smith), a pair of nosy gossip hounds. Jack, however, begins to draw out his nervous roommate, bating him with talk of classic movies and, at times, openly flirting with Adrian. The two develop an unusual bond — one with definite homoerotic undertones — but things go sour when Jack starts chatting up the neighbors. He seduces each individually, exploiting their weaknesses with such ease it’s clear he learned Lesson No. 1 in the art of seduction: Assess your target, then act accordingly. 

Here, in the midst of all these romances, is where Donovan sneaks up from behind and quietly loops the wire around our throats. With claustrophobic camera work, he lets us glimpse snippets of the truth behind Jack’s real reason for showing up in politically tumultuous Argentina. There’s a disappearance here, a body there, and Jack never seems to be accounted for when people start to ask questions. None of these murders take place on camera — violence implied has twice the scare power — and no one can be sure if or how Jack’s involved. Is he a political assassin? A serial killer? An innocent man? Though Jack plays cool, Adrian can’t shake his suspicions. But as the credits close in, “Apartment Zero” reveals itself to be a thorny whodunnit with no easy answers, a movie that keeps us guessing and squirming until the final minutes.

Much of this unease comes from Donovan’s structure and his eye for details. His decision to eschew bloody murder scenes is a wise one, since it allows viewers’ imaginations to run wild. We guess, we assume, we form our hunches, but we cannot be certain without visual evidence. Oh, what crushing weight that doubt has. The cinematography, with its focus on dark corners and lingering shots, adds much to this tense atmosphere. The camera work gives us clues and yanks them away in equal measure.

Neither do the actors give much away. People trickle in and out as apartment dwellers or victims, but “Apartment Zero” belongs to Bochner and Firth. Why this role didn’t give Bochner his big acting break is utterly baffling, for he conveys impressive menace and serpentine charm as Jack. We know virtually nothing about this man, and yet Bochner makes him the kind of character who haunts our dreams. The only person possibly more troubling is Adrian LeDuc, who, as Firth plays him, is so repressed it’s shocking that he hasn’t turned inside out. A repressed man is a dangerous man, and it’s an excruciating wait to see how Adrian will melt down. We know “Apartment Zero” will do the same. Not since Hitchcock has a thriller this spare been so exhilarating.

Grade: A