I’ll say this for The Tenant, it has ambition. It desires scope, pathos, strong characterization, and respectability so badly that it’s mashed two completely disparate story threads together to try and make it happen. In that sense it’s a bit like Funny People, except not funny and not… good. The film even has the lofty aspiration of making you feel truly bad for its boogeyman, like Frankenstein, but it doesn’t work in the slightest. Unfortunately, The Tenant is watchable only in ways that aren’t intended.
The film’s first half revolves around the love, life and professional tribulations of Dr. Newman (Randy Molnar). He’s obsessed with genetic experimentation to such a degree that he’s buying heads from the morgue and draining their ocular fluid. His wife, Olivia (Georgia Chris), is naturally upset by all of this but his dutiful nurse Ms. Tinsley (Sylvia Boykin) more than makes up for her lack of enthusiasm. Olivia discovers that she’s pregnant with twins and threatens to leave Dr. Newman (who I should add is the head of a Sanotorium that houses patients like Michael Berryman’s crazed Arthur Delman) if he continues with his research. Sensing the marital friction, Ms. Tinsley injects Olivia’s womb with a genetically bastardized sample of Arthur’s spinal fluid. Dr. Newman is furious when he finds out – though not furious enough to fire Ms. Tinsely. Or really even give her much of a reprimand. When the twins are finally born the female is healthy, the male is an abomination, and Olivia dies (of course).
Years later – 41 minutes into the film – a van full of deaf kids overseen by Liz (Aerica D’Amaro) and surly driver Jeff (J. LaRose) breaks down and they take refuge in Dr. Newman’s boarded up Sanitorium. Once the steel door slams shut they’re stuck inside with the building’s “tenant” – Dr. Newman’s deformed son. It’s a bold move to structure a film like this, with what are essentially two halves. They’re so different that The Tenant effectively switches genres (from wannabe Cronenberg to wannabe slasher) at the halfway point.
Unfortunately that bold move doesn’t pay off. As inept as the film’s first half is, at least it’s interesting. Once the story shift happens things go from bad to worse. I suppose that making most of the victims deaf could have been conceived as a device to ratchet up the tension, like having them not be able to hear the lumbering killer. But it’s not used that way. The only real result of this decision is that an indistinguishable group of people are rendered even more indistinguishable by their inability to speak.
The one person who does distinguish himself out of this lot is J. LaRose’s Jeff. Jeff is so unrelentingly smug, stupid, unlikable and annoying that even saving a bunch of deaf kids fails to justify his continued existence. I’m literally astonished that the filmmakers thought they could plug an *sshole of this degree into their film and then attempt to redeem him with slack heroism in the final reel. That’s not an arc, it’s just anachronistic. There’s no way LaRose could even begin to rescue his character with his performance since the script is insistent his every line of dialogue being increasingly petulant.
In the end, The Tenant gets some points over other DTV entries for not being a total bore, but it’s certainly not a success on its own terms. Its flatly lit grasp falls short of its reach in every category.