Russ Emanuel’s science-fiction thriller Occupants (2015) is a fine example of taking a lower budget, stripped-down approach to a unique concept and making it work. Most of the special effects are limited to visual ones, yet the approach works and builds to a horror-film feel by its climax. The film won Best Sci-Fi Feature Film at Shriekfest this year.
Occupants is a film that I hesitate to lump into the found-footage category for two reasons: first, doing so would instantly turn off many potential viewers, which would be a shame, and second, as in some other similar film styles, the footage was never actually lost in regards to what occurs in the movie. It does take a self-made documentary approach, though, and was, in the story, assembled after the fact by people other than the filmmakers. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s focus on other elements of this rewarding slow-burn effort.
Budding filmmaker Annie Curtis (Briana White) talks her husband Neil (Michael Pugliese) into participating in a 30-day, vegan, clean living program. She wants to make a documentary about their efforts, so they set up cameras throughout their house. Potential viewers concerned about shaky-cam effects after reading the previous paragraph need not worry; pretty much all of the shots are stationary.
The cameras record not only the Curtis’s successes and difficulties with their new lifestyle; the two begin seeing what seems to be a parallel version of themselves in the same house but from another dimension. They consult Dr. Alan Peterson (science-fiction TV and film veteran Robert Picardo) of the Peterson Research Institute for advice on how to handle the phenomenon. Annie and Neil initially simply feel sorry for the other couple because they seem to have problems with their relationship, but when one of the other two commits a heinous act on their partner, Annie decides to get involved, which leads to chilling consequences.
Director Russ Emanuel and screenwriter Julia Camara wring a great deal out of their deceptively simple idea. Occupants builds slowly, as the first act takes its time to let viewers get to know Annie and Neil, and showing their loving relationship. Though not a lot happens in the out-of-the-ordinary department at first, things are hinted at as Annie proclaims that she has heard about some like-minded folks having had preternatural experiences when taking a similar cleansing course. During this first act, Briana White and Michael Pugliese give charming performances and feel like a real couple, alternately supporting, joking with, and disagreeing with each other. The two actors have wonderful chemistry together. This first act feels more like a drama than a science-fiction shocker but tension mounts after that, and viewers are treated to the pair stretching into darker performances as the alternate-dimension couple. White especially surprises, as her sweet, upbeat personality that viewers initially see is sharply contrasted by her turn as the disturbing parallel Annie. Robert Picardo acquits himself well as a researcher of the atypical, though at times, because his character is shown only on computer screens, it feels like he had no one to act against and those scenes can feel a little stiff.
Julia Camara’s screenplay sticks to its rules rather well, though I confess to not being a nitpicker when it comes to films about parallel realities, time travel, and the like, so some viewers may find plot holes that passed me by. Russ Emanuel oversees things admirably, and he shows a deft hand at slowly turning up the heat in the suspense department. The third act is definitely worth waiting for. He also avoids several of the tropes of found-footage style films, or uses them to his advantage. One quibble I had was with the use of incidental music in what was supposed to be, in the conceit of Occupants, a documentary assembled by the Peterson Research Institute after some serious and disquieting events, but this was a minor issue for me in the larger scheme of the film.
Occupants rewards patient viewers with several creepy moments and an eerie payoff. It is a well-crafted approach to an original idea, with strong performances by its lead actors in multiple roles. As evidenced by its success at Shriekfest, this film is definitely worth seeking out as it continues on the film festival circuit.
Occupants: (4 / 5)