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The webcam/stationary camera in a corner of a room film-style has become a popular way to tell a story in modern film, especially in horror, perhaps most notably employed in the successful Paranormal Activities franchise. Even M. Night Shyamalan used it his latest, The Visit. In Occupants, it is used for nearly the entirety of the movie and while the plot device is admittedly wearing thin overall in movies, it works well enough here that it’s not distracting. Given the dense premise of the story, the placement of the camera is the last thing to be thinking about.
It begins with a young couple in a nice home with comfortable surroundings. Annie Curtis (Briana White) is a documentary filmmaker with a few well-received titles that have garnered some critical praise. For her latest production, she plans to film the effects of going on a total vegan, chemical and processed-free food diet with her husband Neil (Michael Pugliese), who is willing but a little reluctant to play along. Aside from cleaning out the frig and cupboards and restocking with all-natural, fresh ingredients, she sets up a few cameras and begins recording. She primes us (and Neil) with tales of how a clean body is often attributed to opening channels to other dimensions. Neil is skeptical. Little do the know.
After a week, she begins to rifle through the footage. What she finds is a lot more interesting than weight loss and sleeping troubles. Tucked in the clips is a shot of their living room and in it are Annie and Neil except not the Annie and Neil in the rest of the film clips. This couple is an entirely different couple, even if they look mostly the same and live in the same house. While the original Annie is a perky blonde and Neil is a casual good-natured bearded man, the other Annie is a brunette and the opposite Neil is cleanly-shaven. They are also far more formal and seem much less happy. Indeed, there is something under the surface.
While Annie and Neil struggle for an explanation, they come to the conclusion that they’ve opened a portal to a parallel dimension. They decide to watch and learn, to understand how it happened and figure out a way to reveal this incredible discovery. Their first call is to Dr. Alan Peterson (Robert Picardo), the head of the prestigious Peterson Research Institute, and acquaintance of Annie. He confesses that they are not the first to experience something like this, but what they are going through is unique. Annie and Neil make a habit to watch the eerie footage, but what they witness becomes unnerving, and then troublesome. Somehow, the two worlds have merged. It grows worse from there.
Directed by Russell Emanuel, this sci-fi psychological thriller is a well-written mind-bender that poses a lot of interesting questions and then answers most, though not all, appropriately enough. The simple setting is almost entirely restricted to four rooms and for any fan of this method, will feel very familiar. Every angle has a darkened doorway and we are, by the dozens of copycats in the last decade, primed for the jump scares, though refreshingly, and perhaps knowingly, Emanuel avoids nearly all the tropes and sticks more to the plot. This is not a conventional horror film, and in fact, I hesitate to even describe it as such. This is not a ghost story. It is not a graphic, gore-fueled slasher. This is about a dilemma, one that seems to make no sense but nonetheless is affecting.
While the start up is perfunctory, once this story kicks in, there are some clever things happening. The cameras, which seem contrived at first, play a larger part as they limit not only what we see but what Annie and Neil see. That becomes important. Are they seeing the whole picture? Are we? And in both dimension? It’s an intriguing element and one that causes some debate among the characters. That said, the story is less concerned with the remarkable fact that proof of parallel universes exist and are connected by a small portal (indeed, both Annie and Neil seem wholly unmoved by it), and more with building up the eventual interaction between the worlds. For a science fiction fan, it’s a tad disappointing but once that barrier is hurdled, and we get involved in the developing relationship between the four characters, it’s easy to find our footing again. In truth, by the midway point, curiosity more than horror is this film’s strongest attribute.
Both White and Pugliese are well-cast and offer some very natural performances. Veteran film and television character actor Picardo is also good though limited to a few short scenes where he remains seated behind a video feed. Certainly, the budget constraints of the film are to blame, but it would have been nice to see him in a more substantial role in the home as a researcher directly involved in the action. Knowing all that, Emanuel does a good job with what he has, giving the movie a sort of stage-play vibe as the revolving, reused sets cycle by and the actors hit all their marks. To keep that as interesting as it is for the film’s 81-minutes is a pretty noteworthy achievement. Occupants is a solid thriller.
Director: Russ Emanuel
Writer: Julia Camara
Stars: Robert Picardo, Briana White, Michael Pugliese