The Hulu anthology series delivers a clunker with this political thriller

The Current Occupant, the latest installment of Hulu’s horror anthology series Into the Dark, is a scuzzy political thriller written by Alston Ramsay and directed by his brother Julius. Despite a game performance from Barry Watson, The Current Occupant struggles to spin itself into anything scary, thrilling, or even entertaining. It’s a disappointment on multiple levels. Into the Dark’s second season has been good overall and The Current Occupant falls short of that bar. And the last Into the Dark I watched was May’s abysmal Delivered, so The Current Occupant had plenty of room to improve and still stumbles.

Writer Alston Ramsay channels his experience as a D.C. speechwriter into this story of a man, Henry Cameron (Watson), who believes he’s the President of the United States. The problem for Henry is that he’s in a psychiatric hospital and nobody seems to acknowledge or respect his assumed position of Commander in Chief. Instead he’s subjected to a battery of physical and mental tests. A shooting has left Henry with amnesia and unable to walk, so he’s being rebuilt from the ground up. The groundwork is laid for a story of a political pawn being born. Or, maybe, it’s an allegory about a man’s delusions of grandeur. Considering the current occupant of the White House, a tale about an unqualified white man thinking he should be president carries a certain amount of relevancy.

But The Current Occupant finds the least interesting path possible. It plays like a standard issue paranoid thriller, and the revelations about Henry’s stay in the psychiatric hospital won’t surprise you at all. The staff is overbearing and menacing, from the hulking orderly (Marvin Jones III) to the stern Dr. Larson (Sonita Henry), and the script barely develops these supporting characters. With little to work with the performances are one note and the lack of nuance dulls the narrative. The movie is paced like a horse race, and that propulsive energy works in its favor. But as soon as you stop to think about the plot, it’s clear that there is no there there. The dingy, sickly aesthetic of the asylum and the quick cut editing makes The Current Occupant look like it belongs in the Saw universe.

Watson’s performance is the only aspect of the film that elevates the whole affair. Henry is constantly wavering between seeing through the facade and being a helpless cog in a machine. Watson navigates that balance well enough to give the film some life. But The Current Occupant never truly finds its footing, and eventually viewers will check out well before the film’s 80 minute runtime expires.

While the off the cuff reference for The Current Occupant is The Manchurian Candidate, there’s an in-house comparison that more accurately highlights The Current Occupant’s shortcomings. Going all the way back to Into the Dark’s third episode, Pooka!, we’ve seen this series handle a similar story of someone suffering through a psychological breakdown. Both films traffic in nightmare imagery and deals with characters broken beyond repair, but only one is able to capitalize on its premise. Pooka! does everything The Current Occupant sets out to do, but executes at a higher level.

After a strong start to the second season, Into the Dark has hit a bit of a rough stretch this summer. Hopefully the series can get back on track as we get to the last two episodes. Despite the mixed consensus on the series, I’ve largely been a fan. I like the series giving newer voices an opportunity and the general freedom that comes with an anthology series. Let’s hope Into the Dark is able to break through the dog days of an unusually long summer.

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