The reason I watched The Dark Stranger,not just once or twice but three times is that it trapped me in a paradox where I couldn’t help but think that this is something so very different and yet so very familiar. TDS is a first feature film from writer director Chris Treblicock who cut his teeth working with Sarah Polley on Away From Her (2006) and on films like Phil The Alien (2004) and the television series Puppets Who Kill (2002 – 2006)- no stranger with a camera or on a film set. So, right out of the gate there’s experience at play along with some pretty great connections. Star system or no star system – pretty much every Canadian film lover has the good sense to check out a movie starring Stephen McHattie (The Stranger) whose character in TDS enters the film like a Lance Hendriksen cameo. McHattie can take something as simple, even innocuous as the line “Oh, then this isn’t a good time,” and turn it into something almost too polite to not be menacing.
But a moment on director/writer Treblicock before I drift into other areas – and this goes back to why I watch the film three times. I don’t know Treblicock but I’m going to take a leap and say, the dude knows his movies. There’s enough in TDS to make any film enthusiast (and dare I say historian) sit back and relax and say, “Okay, I’m in good hands.” The story – which I won’t go in too deeply – involves Leah Garrison (Katie Findlay) a young agoraphobic illustrator haunted by her own psychosis and (real or unreal) a dark stranger who pops out of the story she’s illustrating. The scenarios Treblicock builds around this premise arise organically from films like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and a bit of Robert Altman’s Images (1972)along with a narrative connect to George A. Romero’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1993) There are also animated sequences in the film depicting Leah’s illustrated story; here the narrative switch turns to a somewhat harder version of Coraline (2009) and a obscure reference to a really creepy short story by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son who I guess doesn’t want the unfortunate pen name, Joe-King). The Dark Stranger embraces all of these, and yet remains strangely removed. A paradox not a contradiction; a translation not an imitation.
I’m inclined to think the film’s cinematographer, D. Gregor Hagey (who I desperately want to appear on my televised talk-show Making Movie’s The Canadian Way) shares Treblicock’s knowledge of film history. D. Gregor Hagey’s cinematography which captures (aided with the some astute editing and special effects) a sharp perspective of a young woman tripping between a marred reality, frightening hallucinations and an all-out fantasy. Hagey won best cinematography for his work at the 2015 Blood In the Snow Canadian Film Festival in Toronto. How do I know that? I happened to be one the jury members that year. Watching the film again – I can sleep at night knowing that the jury chose well.
I recently heard a director introduce his d.i.y. film to its premiere audience as not having a shoe-string budget but more of a cheese-string budget. A great joke and an amusing way to curb an audience’s expectations who are likely raised on multiplex genre films that bury their deficiencies beneath a million-dollar sheen. The Dark Stranger does better that a cheese-string budget – but, yeah, shoe-string budget applies – but a shoe-string lacing up a pretty snazzy pair of Converses (sorry – I’m in my late 50s. Are Converses still a thing?). Sure, there are times when TDS stumbles – some are merely personal distractions: Why would a caring father play a push-me-pull-me-game over a piece of art with his psychologically fragile daughter? And some of the problems are budgetary hiccups – as good as most of the special effects are the sudden change from common faces to snarling zombie-like creatures looks like there may have been a nearby face-painting booth at the neighbourhood street fair.
It’s not always easy to get folks to sit down and watch a low-budget film and see its merits beyond the modest production cost. It’s like trying to get my nine-year old daughter to watch a silent or black and white film (and btw she is NOT allowed to watch The Dark Stranger until she’s at least twelve). But the value TDS provides in performances, in its depiction of an uneasy spiral into madness and the struggles of a family dealing with trauma lifts the film well above its price-tag.
The Dark Stranger is a gripping and ultimately human psychological horror that draws from the masters even if it doesn’t know that that’s what its doing.
The Dark Stranger plays July 6 and 7 at Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa and July 15 in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Halifax on Cineplex Theatre’s Event Screens. The film is also scheduled for U.S. ancillary release across all major digital, EST, VOD, streaming, TV and DVD platforms in October by genre distributor, Terror Films.
Watch the trailer here.