A documentarian named Annie has roped her husband into a project that involves setting up cameras throughout their house. Complications arise when the cameras start showing that same couple in an alternate universe.
It’s always tough to go into festival settings, and make the call as to whether the powers-that-be will accept your judgement when choosing to review a film. In the case of my bosses, the question always is, “does the piece have enough horror to warrant inclusion on Horror Freak News?”
On the surface, Russ Emanuel’s Occupants – which received its Los Angeles premiere this last weekend at the 16th Annual Shriekfest – is a creative and goofy sci-fi exercise. It’s enjoyable, but in its third act, it takes a much darker turn.
I was reminded of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild – not because Occupants reaches the heights of greatness which Something Wild does, but because it succeeds on an important level reminiscent of that 1986 Melanie Griffith-starrer.
It effectively changes gears and it manages to work on all the ideas it presents. And with the more somber and violent third act (just like Something Wild), I can absolutely justify completion of this review and its posting on the site; with the bosses’ blessing.
In other words, Occupants is more than appropriate to suit the tastes of our Horror Freaks.
Annie Curtis (Briana White) has convinced her husband Neil (Michael Pugliese) to go on a 30-day vegan diet involving anything but processed foods – obviously leaving out dairy and meat. Annie’s also a documentary filmmaker, and has set up cameras at key locations all around their home, to document the trials and tribulations of this pizza and potato-chip free experiment. Soon after, as she begins to review the footage, she discovers another couple in the footage – someone living in their home (it’s decorated much differently) who happen to look exactly like Annie and Neil (their fashion taste and hair colors are also different). Turns out it is Annie and Neil, simply in an alternate reality. The “real” Annie and Neil become obsessed with watching their alternate selves and ask for advice from one of Annie’s friends, Dr. Alan Peterson (played by the great Robert Picardo) – and things in the story move on from there.
I was apprehensive at first, and figured, “oh, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the film, ‘cause it doesn’t look like I’ll be reviewing it”. But, as we so often like to say, “Wait for it. Wait for it.”
And that’s not to say the film is boring or unworthy when it’s more light-hearted.
Performances are key here, and both Pugliese and White are required to not only play two versions of their character, but make it work within the different realities inhabited by each version. And they pull it off beautifully. On the “real” side, they’re a happy couple, and the actors perfectly sell the chemistry and obvious connection between the characters. On the “other” side, Neil and Annie are distant and unhappy, and seeing the “real” side react to the performances from the “other” side, well – I can imagine it could have become confusing and surreal, so you have to give credit to the two leads for making it work.
As for Picardo, he only ever appears on a Skype/FaceTime connection on Annie’s computer, but he provides the almost-snarky delivery of valuable information (Dr. Peterson knows his stuff) to help our two lead characters understand their predicament. Picardo never fails to deliver, and his appearance in Occupants is no exception. My favorite moment (not sure if it was Picardo’s or director Emanuel’s inspired idea); as Dr. Peterson signs off, he nonchalantly takes a swig from his coffee cup – probably thinking they’ve already disconnected. For my avid readers of 2, you know I’m a sucker for fun details, and that’s what this is. I point it out, as it completely sums up Picardo’s role in the film. Bottom line, this actor can make anything interesting and fun – even slurping up the dregs in a coffee cup.
The visual effects are well done. When Annie and Neil (the “real” ones) discover a tiny wormhole which connects the two realities, it’s a re-used kind of flash effect, as communication begins between the two realities.
I was also a fan of the editing. Since they’re mostly stationary cameras set up around the home, it could become a bore rather quickly. Obviously it serves the story, but when the camera goes static and switches to the “other” reality, it really keeps the viewer on edge. You’re constantly waiting for the “other” side to appear on the “real” side, or vice versa. And the anticipation definitely pays off – I just won’t tell you where.
But I think the biggest success for Occupants, is its ability to pull off a “below the surface” story. Sure, it’s got fun visuals, some good thrills and an exciting idea at its core, but the story takes an even deeper turn as the audience is made to examine their own destinies and the paths they’ve taken in their own lives. So many questions of “What if” and “Could I have” are brought up as you watch these characters react to these strange possibilities.
And with that mention of reaction; I’ll briefly jump back to performance – I thought the reactions of Annie and Neil (in the hands of the actors) were authentic and genuine. This portion of the story and the performances here – are sort of a call-out to the original Poltergeist. At first, it’s all fun and strange and surreal, but as the characters travel down that wormhole, things turn terrifying and violent and difficult — and the actor’s reactions to all of this are solid.
My favorite moment in the film is the raising of a wine glass – with a nod and a toast. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a chilling moment. Oh, and a one-word description of another stellar moment: PAINT.
With strong performances, a unique story and the goodness of a very quality build to an expected (but still exciting) conclusion, Occupants hits all of the marks it sets out to – goofy, high-brow sci-fi, creepy anticipation and a violent payoff.
Occupants is currently making its way across the festival circuit (including a win for Best Sci-Fi Feature at this past weekend’s Shriekfest). No wider release information is currently available.