Cinematic Releases: Occupants (2015)

Chris Jordan reviews the reality-bending found-footage indie thriller, which was featured at Comic Con over the weekend.

The San Diego Comic Con gave us a whole lot of big movie and TV news over the weekend: trailers for Justice League, Wonder Woman, Blair Witch, American Gods... but let's not forget that it also gave a platform to some very cool indie genre films that could use the exposure a lot more than some of those sure-to-be-blockbusters. One of those films was the ambitious and high-concept found-footage thriller Occupants, which screened on Saturday night as part of the Comic Con International Independent Film Festival. While I wasn't able to fly out to San Diego to attend Comic Con and see their indie film selections hosted by the filmmakers, I had the chance to see a screener copy of Occupants, and was thus able to get an early look at director Russ Emanuel and writer Julia Camara's movie on the same weekend it was enjoying its West Coast debut. 

"What's this... a parallel universe with a
different color temperature?"

The film they assembled is a very interesting take on the found-footage concept, moving away from the usual Paranormal Activity-style tropes and towards a more unique blend of sci-fi/mystery/thriller. You won't find any troublemaking ghosts here, but instead, a pretty cool take on the concept of parallel dimensions, and suspense based around the question of how people might turn out differently under another set of circumstances. It is ultimately a flawed movie, with some aspects that work quite a bit better than others, but credit must be given for doing something genuinely different with the found-footage medium; a unique concept executed unevenly is (I think) better than a repetition of tired tropes done well.

"I hate it when parallel universe crossover
causes picture interference!"
Right from the start, it is clear that the use of found footage is being handled differently this time around. After the initial Blair Witch-esque text prologue explaining that the footage comes from an unsolved case-file (gotta have that pretense of realism!), we are introduced to what is essentially a rough assembly of raw footage from a documentary. Our two main characters – a married couple (Briana White and Michael Pugliese), of whom the wife is a filmmaker – are working on a healthy-living documentary, for which they have placed cameras all over the public areas of their house. This means that the footage isn't shaky-cam-style handheld stuff, but an actual multi-cam production. This device not only allows director Emanuel to avoid the usual visual annoyances of many found-footage movies, but also builds in an answer for why the characters are filming everything when stuff gets weird. It also allows for some fun, slightly postmodern scenes in which the documentarian protagonist, Annie, talks about the filmmaking process, and her approach in cutting the wealth of around-the-house footage into a compelling story (the result of which, of course, is the fictional rough-cut that we're seeing). Things get strange when the footage starts inexplicably showing another version of their house, with another version of themselves: a window into a parallel universe, where they appear to be a miserable couple headed for some sort of imminent disaster. They keep the cameras rolling and keep watching, fascinated and disturbed by who they could have been under different circumstances... but opening the window to these tragic parallel versions of themselves soon presents consequences.

Occupants is at its best when it is operating as a high-concept relationship thriller, about how a happy couple could have been sent down a much more tragic path if their circumstances were just a bit different. It is in these moments that the writer, director, and two leads create some strong emotional impacts and unsettling “what if” chills. The parallels between the happy version of the couple in this reality and the struggling one on the other end of the cameras, sliding further towards misery despite a couple moments of reaching for something better, are alternately sweet and very sad. The question of how a person can be loving in one reality and cruel in another, and whether it would take just a push for the kind version to turn into the nasty one, has pretty disturbing implications. This is where the script works best, and where the director and two leads dig into the material most effectively.

"I just want to find a parallel dimension where
people aren't so quick to judge found-footage
movies as Blair Witch knockoffs! It's so unfair!"
However, it does falter elsewhere. Firstly, the script makes the mistake of thinking that the anomaly of the dimension-bridging cameras needs to be explained. There are a few scenes where the characters throw out a bunch of possibilities of what might have caused this to happen... and some are very, very silly, with allusions to the Mayan calendar and theories about vegan diets awakening latent psychic powers (someone call Scott Pilgrim's Vegan Police!). In a story like this where the sci-fi plot device is clearly a metaphor to address deeper concerns like ethical identity and the decay of a happy relationship into a potentially-abusive one, it's totally fine to leave that plot device unexplained. In fact, it's better to leave it unexplained than to throw some goofy explanations into the ring which will distract viewers from what the film is really about. These more dubious moments of theorizing seem to make the actors a bit ill at ease as well, creating the weakest moments of otherwise solid performances. Then, there's the matter of the third act. While the first two acts focus much more on the drama, and suspense in the psychological sense, the film decides to turn into more of an outright thriller towards the end, and makes some narrative jumps that strain plausibility and take some characters' actions a bit too far. There are still some very strong moments and effective twists, but some of the more believability-stretching choices cause the last few minutes to not have the emotional punch that the first hour achieved at its best.

Still, these flaws do not ultimately undo the movie; they just make it an uneven one. It doesn't always work, and it makes a few missteps, but when it works it works well. Its finest moments are very effective, and its choice to use a parallel-universe concept as a tool to tell the story of a crumbling relationship is inspired. It also uses found footage in a very effective way, and I appreciated its postmodern nods to the storytelling process. For these strong points it is definitely worth a look, and I really appreciated its ambitions. There are better found-footage films out there, but this one definitely tries to do something unique with the style, and at its best it succeeds nicely. It has a few more festival screenings coming up – give it a look if you can.

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- Christopher S. Jordan