Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cinema File 337: "The Occupants" Review

One of my favorite movies of 2013 was a little low budget horror flick called Haunter, directed by Vincenzo Natali of Cube and Splice fame. The great thing about the movie was how it managed to be so original in a sub-genre of horror movies where almost every possible permutation has been done to death (no pun intended). Ghost stories are hard, even when you're not doing something new and just trying to get the basics right, so to see both done so well was such a pleasant surprise. The Occupants is the first ghost movie I've seen in 2014, and while its unfair to compare two otherwise unrelated films, I can't help but feel even more underwhelmed than I might have been without the comparison.

The Occupants is the story of a young couple living in a new house with their new baby who suddenly find themselves besieged by the home's previous owners, a family of ghosts apparently killed by a rage-aholic father who now seems keen on adding the new tenants to his clan. The first thing that attracted me to this film was the cast, a better than average assortment of interesting character actors led by How I Met Your Mother's Cristin Miloti and Artie The Strongest Man In The World himself Toby Huss as the villainous patriarch. Add to that James Urbaniak, the voice of Dr. Thaddeus Venture on the Venture Bros. and it seemed like there had to be something to this to set it apart from the typical throwaway fare. Regrettably, there isn't much.

The film's major structural flaw is in just how rote and predictable the story is. There's what seems like an interesting twist just after the first reveal of the ghosts, that the protagonist's experience counseling troubled families convinces her to stay and help them rather than flee in terror, but what could have been a novel plot point proves to be just a flimsy pretext to keep the couple in the house when they have no reason to stay. It might have worked had they not established the newborn baby, which just makes their decision reckless rather than sympathetic. Had they cut the kid from the script and followed through with the idea of a social worker using her skills to mediate the issues of hostile ghosts, this might have been something interesting enough to sit through, but its never brought up again.

Instead, the movie is basically a tired retread of every trope you can think of in a haunted house movie, lazily trotted out one after the other in that way that suggests the producers don't really like these kinds of movies enough to pay tribute to them, and are really just making a horror movie because they think its an easy property to sell. The aforementioned cast all do their best, but their talents are mostly wasted. Miloti's big anime eyes would seem like the perfect fit for a horror movie heroine, and Urbaniak is able to pull off unassuming charm and creepy deviance in equal measure, but neither actor is utilized enough. The biggest disappointment is Huss, who barely gets any screen time, and when he is there, its mostly just to growl and then disappear a second later.

And I didn't even get to the ending. Without spoiling it too much, The Occupants ends with what we used to call a Shayamalan-esque silly twist before even he got sick of using them, and even by that standard, its a pretty bad one. I won't give it away except to say that the movie cycles through all the other possible explanations for the ghostly phenomenon other than it being actual ghosts, and then settles on the least interesting one, with such a lame and obvious connection to what we thought we knew about them that I wouldn't be surprised if it was tacked on after an even more boring and terrible ending was found not to work as well. I try to go easy on low budget horror given the limitations these filmmakers often face, but there's no excuse for failing this badly at the basics. Avoid this movie at all costs.
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