After the death of his grandmother, New Yorker Danny Hill (Van Hansis) is set to inherit her large rent controlled Manhattan apartment. Taking the advice from his lawyer (Steve Routman) and the creepy, but helpful, door man, Joe (Thorsten Kaye), he must lock himself away in the apartment for 12 days in order to occupy the property in his name and for his lawyer to obtain a court order forcing the . Day by day, his psyche begins to deteriorate. After the disappearance of his girlfriend (Cody Horn) and the death of an exterminator in his apartment, he begins to imagine sounds and images until paranoia takes over and he barricades himself inside.
The premise and execution of The Occupant promises a lot more than the film as directed by Henry (Anamorph 2007) Miller actually delivers. It would be unfair to classify this movie as a failure because of that, but it does play into how the reception of the final scenes shape the impression the film ultimately makes. The idea is solid – place the lead in an apartment for twelve days and watch him mentally deteriorate. Then surround the lead with enough suspiciously supernatural elements to question who or what is involved. If nothing else, question his own sanity. All this for an generously sized rent controlled apartment in Manhattan. Unfortunately it’s what the script (by Jonathan Brett) does with all these elements that make it both successful and mediocre. It tries very hard to strike evenly between realistic psychodrama and supernatural tinged mystery. It hits it mark almost too perfectly, if there can be such a thing. However, the film is carried by a strong lead performance by Van Hansis and a memorable supporting performance by Thorsten Kaye as Joe. A generous amount of claustrophobia, paranoia and insanity keep the sluggish pace from being its own death knell. A deserving film with a slow build up to a conclusion that may not satisfy each and every viewer equally.
The film takes its time setting up a series of mysterious events and suspicious surroundings. Why is the cat so spooked? What are those noises? Why are their scratches in the headboard? What’s up with the old shoes? And why is there a gaping whole hidden in closet wall? Oh,yeah – and where the hell did the girlfriend disappear to? Not to mention the paranoia and the creepy doorman who may be on his side or may just be setting him up for some unthinkable purpose. The problem is the film only teases with many of these elements – many of them having little, hidden or confusing meaning. Arguably that’s part of the point; the film is about a man loosing his sanity all told from his perspective. But the film stops short of selling it one way or another. For those who want the scratches in the headboard or the hole in the wall to mean something supernatural, they may be disappointed; for those who believe it’s all coincidence leading a paranoid man to the edges of his own sanity, they may find themselves short changed. The film is neither one of those things, but is both of them at once and more. It’s a schizophrenic as the lead is delirious and unstable. It’s a curious concoction.
The film has a couple of other things going against it as well. It uses title cards for each day in an awkward and invasive manner. They are jarring and disruptive. Much like Paranormal Activity’s use of “Day 1” titles to break up sequences, The Occupant does as well but with a much more stark delivery. It does not go well with the steady pace and build the movie is structuring otherwise. The film also has a hard time with its characters; no one seems real enough. Even the lead character. It’s all about their quirks and they end up a bit disingenuous. Some are suspicious for suspicious sake. There’s a lack of authenticity the film strives for, especially the more extraneous characters come into play: neighbors, police officers, apartment managers and exterminators. Again, it may be part of the purpose; but, if so, it misses its mark. It’s difficult to say for sure, as every character is told from the perspective of the lead character not necessarily the narrative, for better or for worse.
What The Occupant does well, so well to just about overcome these drawbacks, is to steadily build the tension throughout the film. While the first few days drag (but only just a bit), by day seven things are beginning to break the receptiveness of setting things up and reinforcing the environment by illustrating how Danny Hill’s mind is becoming increasingly unwound. The pace picks up. The music increases in tempo. The camera begins to tilt and move about. Subtle things begin to appear as well. A room is painted bright red. The cat goes missing. Grandma’s shoes keep reappearing beside the bed. And not matter what, Danny cannot leave the apartment or he risks losing the financial reward of an insanely low priced rental. It all builds to support the the mental breakdown of the lead and the performance of Van Hansis.
All the actors combine to make the roles in The Occupant work and hold the film together. Van Hansis keeps the audience guessing if he’s insane or being manipulated by some unseen force. The film rests on his shoulders and he does an admirable job, especially the more fragile Danny’s mental state becomes. His inferred paranoia defines the latter half of the film. Thorsten Kaye is memorable in the role of Joe the doorman. He never lets anyone in on what is really going on behind the character’s eyes. Charismatic enough to garner trust but just unsettling enough to keep the viewer guessing. Cody Horn brightens up the scenery with her brief screen time sharing a strong chemistry with Van Hansis. It would have been good to have more of her character in the film.
The Occupant is a decent, enjoyable film that suffers from not living up to its own potential. This results in a lackluster emotion with its conclusion. It’s like a glass of soda that’s gone just a bit flat. It hasn’t gone bad, but it should have been spectacular. There’s still enough in The Occupant to recommend however and it’s an entertaining character study. The acting is strong and the direction builds the tension to it’s logical conclusion – maybe visually far fetched, but emotionally logical. Still if the film had embraced the supernatural undertones more confidently or abandoned them altogether, it may not have suffered this lack of flavor or intensity.
3 out of 5
The Occupant (2011)