'The Dark Stranger'
‘The Dark Stranger’ is an ambitious debut from writer/director Chris Trebilcock that mixes genre thrills and deeper themes to intriguing effect. It’s a passion project for the filmmaker and a uniquely twisted vision peppered with clear influences and homages to horror hits of the past.
The movie stumbles when it reaches too far and attempts to fuse a few too many genres and ideas together. That can be frustrating, but it’s still nice to see a movie that suffers from over-ambition rather than not having nearly enough. That’s distressingly rare these days.
Katie Findlay stars as Leah, a troubled young graphic novelist who hasn’t been able to draw in months. Her artist mother (Emma Campbell) tragically committed suicide after battling depression for years and it seems that Leah has inherited more than just her draftsmanship. Her loving father (Enrico Colantoni) supports the young girl and pushes her to reclaim her craft, perhaps a little too hard. He’s started speaking with an art gallery programmer (Stephen McHattie, always a welcome presence) about putting together a show of his late wife’s work, with a little space for her daughter to display work as well. Obviously, Leah considers this plan to be a bit much, but suddenly finds herself compulsively writing a new dark fairy tale of a graphic novel with a mysterious Dark Stranger (see title). She can’t help herself and the work is strong. Yet the explosion of creativity is also accompanied by nightmare visions in her daily life and possibly even the evil figure at the center of her comic crossing over into the real world.
The movie is clearly a horror tale with more on its mind than just scares. Trebilcock bounces between genres linked only by morbid themes. The film plays as both a study in the peculiar relationship between creativity and depression as well as a distinctly Krueger-esque monster movie. The filmmaker also dabbles in animation to visualize his protagonist’s graphic novel and the results are rather striking. The film has moments of body horror, touches of surrealism, scenes of pure drama, long flights of fantasy, and even a little romance tossed in (because why not?).
You have to admire the scope of what Trebilcock is attempting to accomplish as a first time filmmaker even if it doesn’t always come together. At times, he stretches too far and the mix between sincere character study and fantasy horror can often feel bumpy. The budget also starts to show its limitations in an undercooked finale, and at a certain point it feels like the movie slipped away from the bold new filmmaker.
Thankfully, the strengths overwhelm the shortcomings. The movie features some genuinely unnerving scenes, particularly once the protagonist’s sanity starts to slip. The animation sequences are impressive and the exploration of depressive artists is admirably sincere. Performances can be a bit raw from some of the young supporting players, but Katie Findlay proves to be a strong grounding force in the lead. She’s surrounded by solid veteran support from the likes of Colantoni and Campbell, who turn potentially one-note roles into more rounded characters. Stephen McHattie steals nearly every scene away, as he does any time that he’s cast. The guy is a truly underrated screen presence who tends to dominate scenes and sneak under viewers’ skin with ease no matter how big (he’s pretty much the whole show in ‘Pontypool’) or small (‘A History of Violence’) the role. He’s damn good here and saves a few moments that threaten to devolve into silliness. It should be a law that McHattie appear in any genre film requiring an unsettling old man with a voice that could shake building foundations.
‘The Dark Stranger’ is a far from perfect film. It works best as fantasy or drama with hints of horror. It’s not something that will keep gorehounds at bay or breathe new life into the genre. However, it’s a clever and creative twist on old tropes that establishes Chris Trebilcock as a filmmaker with genuine vision. If he didn’t quite knock this one out of the park, that can likely be attributed more to inexperience and budgetary restraints than anything else. Hopefully the film does well enough that he’ll have more resources (along with a more streamlined focus) for his next outing. ‘The Dark Stranger’ showcases that the guy clearly has talent. Now it’s time for him to focus and expand. He just might make something great.