(Blumhouse Television and Hulu have partnered for a monthly horror anthology series titled Into The Dark, set to release a full holiday-themed feature every month. Horror anthology expert Matt Donato will be tackling the series one-by-one, stacking up the entries as they become streamable.)
Last year’s fourth of July segment of Into The Dark was a fireworks display of nightmarish nationalism that distorted the “American Dream.” Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock remains an anthology highlight, and frankly, not much across our country’s political landscape has changed since its air-date. If anything? Times are direr, primed for even scarier horror exploitations, but Julius Ramsay’s The Current Occupant doesn’t achieve the same commentary or patriotic frights. At times, we’re asked – purposeful or not – to sympathize with the President of the United States. Not something I’m willing to stomach at the moment.
Henry Cameron (Barry Watson) wakes up in a hospital’s psychiatric ward in full belief that he’s the elected leader of America. The wing’s head physician Dr. Larson (Sonita Henry) assures Henry this couldn’t be farther from the truth. She continually poses a question. What seems more likely? That the president would be imprisoned in a mental institution, or a patient convinces himself that he has the power to change the world? It’s something Henry wrestles with, but as others in the facility promote his conspiracy theory, memories return. Although, can you trust someone who claims to be your Secretary of State when another “ally” claims to be the Emperor (Joshua Burge) of an interstellar quadrant?
At The Current Occupant’s core, there’s a damning message. Is anyone who deems themselves fit to run an entire nation sane? Writer Alston Ramsay uses experimental visual-shock therapy as a way for Dr. Larson to say the hush-hush things out loud. As Henry is strapped to a chair, forced to watch a series of rapid-fire clips that contain past presidents and fluorescent ink splotches, Dr. Larson asks him a series of questions. “Is it fundamentally good to empower an individual over the masses? Is the governing principle of life love or survival?” Both Ramsays dare to equate governmental bodies to inmates running the asylum, but it’s never fully realized based on more generic representations.
As a straightforward horror arc, The Current Occupant is rarely scary and struggles to contain any surprises. The suspense that should be drawn from crazed patients claiming they’re cabinet members or hidden [redacted] files isn’t anything more than asylum-paranoia basics. Orderlies play games with Henry’s mind by whistling the presidential march theme, calling him “Chief,” or planting American flags around his room. Although, that’s about it? The entire entrapment narrative is never thought-out beyond Dr. Larson’s in-your-face style of questioning that paints overruling leadership as a symptom of insanity. Not something I’d actively disagree with, but Henry’s imprisonment isn’t all that nerve-wracking.
The foils introduced into Henry’s “journey” are all somewhat directionless. Maybe it’s “The Administrator” (Ezra Buzzington), who watches from behind thick glass windows. Perhaps it’s an undercover nurse who keeps appearing at random whenever Henry’s thesis needs to be supported. The problem is that camera work always suggests something different when Henry encounters the latter character, not in a way that toys with our perception. We know where this is going. All the tie-dye graphic overlays atop interrogator’s faces can’t distract our senses (think Rorschach from Watchmen, but an introductory Adobe After Effects version with rainbow patterns). There’s little that sets The Current Occupant apart from any other indie horror flick that includes padded rooms and not-all-that-complex mysteries of the mind.
As Henry continues his treatments, his line of questioning always ends with the same conclusion: “In an irrational world, anything is possible.” In a more thought-out film, this quote would land a bit harder. Julius Ramsay begs us to break from tyrannical brainwashing that puts the United States above its citizens, but struggles to do so through an engaging genre lens. “The dream will never die if we believe in our country,” monologued by a distraught Henry, is a line that rattled me to the core. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for The Current Occupant as an attack against perverse political elitism.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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