I Don’t Understand William Hurt’s Plan

When it was recently discussed on theAvod episode 85, the Divemistress and myself were careful not to spoil all of the plot twists that the film ‘The 4th Floor’ had to offer. Unlike theAvod, though, Castle Vardulon is an all-spoiler zone, which makes this the perfect place to address the film’s unbelievably convoluted plot.

Actually, it’s not the plot that I must object to – it motors along effectively enough, propelled by the stupid, unbelievable decisions of the main character. No, my real questions are with the way the film collapses under the convolutions of its own logic once the second twist ending (William Hurt did it!) is revealed.

For most of the film’s running time every single character acts in a preposterously suspicious fashion. In practical terms this serves to create a spate of red herrings to distract the audience from the real killer, Juliette Lewis’ downstairs neighbour. Of course, since he’s the only character in the film who doesn’t act incredibly suspiciously (other than a Korean grocer), the attentive viewer will tap him as the murderer almost immediately, since he’s the only character for whom the revelation would be a (theoretical) surprise. The basic plot of how JL is terrorized and almost murdered by the man downstairs is serviceable enough, but then the twist appears, and when the rug of mystery is pulled away the rest of the film comes crashing down, the shoddily contrived construction being unable to support its weight.

Yes, the 4th floor is another one of those many, many movies that would have been far better if you’d just left off the final minute's ‘stinger’.

After Juliette has survived her ordeal with the downstairs neighbour, we get a look at Tobin Bell’s collection of sketches. In addition to being an amazingly ominous locksmith, Tobin also enjoys spying on people with binoculars so that he can draw them.

That’s the sketch that turns the plot on its ear – William Hurt conspiring with the downstairs neighbour. Upon seeing this, the viewer is intended to think ‘Oh my god, William Hurt was behind it all – it was a scheme to get Juliette Lewis to move in with him, which wound up getting a little out of hand!’ The filmmaker profoundly doesn’t want the audience to think a single second longer than that, however. If they were to do so, they’d realize just how startlingly terrible William Hurt’s plan must have been for any of the film’s plot to have taken place.

So let’s do just that, and look at William Hurt’s scheme:

William Hurt, a popular TV Weatherman, wants his girlfriend to move in with him. She’s hesitant to do so, however.

WH somehow figures out that the reason JL is nervous about moving in is the fact that she shares a lease on a rent-controlled Manhattan with her aunt, and she’s always fantasized about moving into the apartment when her aunt dies.

JL has fairly morbid fantasies.

William Hurt realizes that there’s only one way to solve this problem – he’s got to have the aunt bumped off so that Juliette Lewis can move into the building soon, where he can have someone terrorize her until she decides to move in with him. So how is he going to accomplish this ridiculous goal?

It seems that William Hurt grew up in that very neighbourhood, and knows the place pretty well.

In another amazing coincidence, he has a childhood friend already living in the building!

In a third, even more amazing coincidence, that neighbour is a wanna-be serial killer who just needs a tiny push to start him down the road to murdering the heck out of JL’s aunt!

So now all that has to happen is for the killer to effectively terrorize the woman living in the upstairs apartment (he’s on three, she’s on four), trusting that he can gradually torment her without her ever contacting any kind of authorities because she’s a shut-in. A shut-in who seemingly doesn’t mind it when people fill their apartment with vermin and make terrible noise from below at all hours of the day and night.

Then, after the terrorizing is done, the downstairs neighbour murders the shut-in, takes over the 4th floor apartment, and then sets the place up to start terrorizing Juliette Lewis.

Oh, but first he’s got to kill the aunt, of course.

Then it’s just a matter of waiting for Juliette Lewis to move in so that he can start the gaslighting.

He sends creepy letters of complaint, drills holes in her floor to put rats through, forces the maggots eating the dead flesh of the shut-in up the pipe and into her shower – you know, general bad-neighbour stuff.

Why don’t the cops put a stop to any of it? The filmmaker tries to explain this away by having them be dismissive when she complains about shattered tiles in her kitchen floor, and then having Juliette just not bother contacting them again.

That’s all well and good from a writing standpoint, but remember, the entirety of William Hurt’s plan was predicated on JL not providing the cops with the ample evidence that she was being criminally harassed by her downstairs neighbour. He had no way of predicting that A: The cops wouldn’t take her seriously when she had a small amount of evidence, or 2: She wouldn’t bother calling the cops when she had mountains of serious, life-threatening evidence to back up her claims.

At any point in the plan the cops (or health department, given the maggots and smell of rotting meat) could have kicked open the 4th floor apartment, and the entire game would have been up. William Hurt’s entire plan based on this NOT happening. But he had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t.

Which is why The 4th Floor is a startlingly poorly-written film.

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