ApartmentZeroI wasn’t terribly impressed with this Buenos Aires-set psychological thriller when it first played back in 1990, and it hasn’t improved a whole lot in the succeeding years.  It contains solid performances and a compelling atmosphere, but otherwise it’s a mess.

APARTMENT ZERO (1988) is best remembered nowadays as a product of the 1989 United States (now Sundance) Film Festival, from which Steven Soderberg’s seminal SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE also emerged (Soderberg, FYI, provides a commentary for Anchor Bay’s APARTMENT ZERO DVD).  A US-financed South American production, it was an early directorial effort by the Argentine-born Martin Donovan, who also directed the made-for-TV shocker THE SUBSTITUTE (1993).  The co-writer and producer was David Koepp, a future Hollywood big shot (subsequent writing credits include JURASSIC PARK and A STIR OF ECHOES) who’d just gotten out of film school.  Two mid-level stars were chosen to headline the film: the British Colin Firth, coming off Milos Foreman’s VALMONT, and the American Hart Bochner, best known at the time for a supporting role in DIE HARD (and nowadays for directing 1993’s PCU).

Those who know this film only through its VHS and early DVD incarnations should be aware that several minutes were excised by Martin Donovan himself.  Thus, only the 2006 Anchor Bay Special Edition DVD contains the film in its 124-minute “Original Theatrical Version.”  Not that this improves the content, but it is worth noting.

Adrian is a severely closed-off, isolated film geek who runs a repertory movie theater in his native city of Buenos Aires (although he desperately tries to pass himself off as British).  Finding himself in financial straights, Adrian is forced to find a roommate.  Enter Jack, an American playboy who inflames Adrian’s none-too-repressed homosexuality.  He becomes unnaturally attached to Jack, and tries to dissuade him from chasing skirts and socializing with the other tenants of their apartment building.

Jack pays Adrian no mind, and takes to seducing many of the apartment’s tenants—including a transvestite!  But there’s a murderer afoot in the city, and Adrian finds himself growing increasingly suspicious of his shady friend’s activities, especially after Adrian learns that Jack’s stated computer job is a sham, and discovers a stash of photos depicting Jack posing with members of a notorious Argentine death squad.

From there Jack tries to flee the country with Adrian’s passport but fails.  He kills a gay man in an effort to procure his passport but fails once again in his efforts.  In the meantime Adrian is attacked by his neighbors in the mistaken belief that he’s the local serial killer.  Jack returns home in time to save Adrian from certain death, and commits yet another murder–while in the meantime Adrian loses his mind.

Martin Donovan clearly possessed an abundance of moviemaking savvy.  For roughly the first 60 of APARTMENT ZERO’S 124 minutes it’s an absorbing viewing experience, boasting a stylish yet unselfconscious filmmaking technique.  The performances of Colin Firth and Hart Bochner are top-notch, and the atmosphere is subtly menacing, with a clear promise of dark deeds to come.

Those dark deeds do arrive, but in less-than-invigorating fashion.  Regardless of how talented a filmmaker Donovan is, he still needs a tight script to work his magic, and David Koepp’s screenplay was anything but tight.  The second half in particular is a jumble, with the narrative splintering off in several directions, all transparently derived from films like THE TENANT (the protagonist’s neighbors ganging up on him), THE SERVENT (the ever-shifting master-subordinate relationship between Firth and Bochner), PERFORMANCE (the way the mismatched central characters bond and eventually swap personalities) and PSYCHO (a loony Firth cavorting with a corpse).

The concept of a film constructed of spare parts from other movies certainly didn’t originate with APARTMENT ZERO (and definitely didn’t end with it), but it does stand as a model of why such an approach is, generally speaking, not a great idea.  Donovan had some real-life concerns, including a political angle he was trying to impart in the pointed death squad subplot, but they’re all-but subsumed by his film geek posturing.

Vital Statistics 

The Summit Company, Ltd.

Director: Martin Donovan
Producers: Martin Donovan, David Koepp
Screenplay: Martin Donovan, David Koepp
Cinematography: Miguel Rodriguez
Editing: Conrad M. Gonzalez
Cast: Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Liz Smith, Dora Bryan, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, James Telfer, Mirella D’Angelo, Juan Vitali, Francesca Daloja, Miguel Ligero, Elvia Andreoli, Marikena Monti, Cipe Lincovsky