Studio: Terror Films
Director: Chris Trebilcock
Writer: Chris Trebilcock
Producer: Glen Wood, Paula Devonshire
Stars: Katie Findlay, Jennifer Dale, Mark O’Brien, Alex Ozerov, Emma Campbell, Stephen McHattie, Enrico Colantoni
A young artist struggling with depression is haunted by a frightening figure that manifests from her graphic novel.
Unfortunately for Leah Garrison, she and her mother Ellen share more in common than natural artistic abilities. Both women have also been pitted in psychological struggles against devastating depression and unshakable suicidal tendencies. Even more unfortunate is that Ellen acted on hers, leaving Leah feeling personally responsible for her mother’s tragic death.
Leah used to cope through art. Lately she copes by cutting. Now waging an additional war against agoraphobia that has her seeing demonic faces on everyone outside, Leah has been unable to draw for months. Everyone from psychiatrist Dr. Parsons to her father Brendan, even younger brother Toby, is anxious to see a return to normalcy for the troubled young woman, though it isn’t coming soon.
What is coming is a mysterious art curator who wants Leah’s mother’s work for an exhibition featuring artists with depression. Leah wants nothing to do with the project, defiantly retreating to her room where a slice on her hand results in blood on her easel.
From the blood forms an image of an eerie figure with an uncanny resemblance to the curator. Leah is suddenly driven to draw a fantasy graphic novel paralleling her own life, but the story becomes dominated by this Dark Stranger. As Leah puts more ink to paper, the power of this supernatural spirit grows. Soon, the Dark Stranger’s influence seeps out of the artwork and into reality as paranormal activity plagues the people in Leah’s life. To repel his evil, Leah must discover who the Dark Stranger is, and what he wants with her family.
This PG-13 poltergeist paired with middle class family drama teeters “The Dark Stranger” into Lifetime TV territory, which won’t win favor from those craving more bite to their frights. That doesn’t merit a dismissive wave of the hand, however. While its slow roll and tame terror keep momentum and menace at a minimum, the movie has a thematic backbone motivating chills where comparative thrillers have only hollow horror.
A first feature for writer/director Chris Trebilcock, “The Dark Stranger” is a scrappy Canadian indie contained to a single house and seven speaking parts (eight if you count Stephen McHattie’s dual role as two), though story and setting slide smoothly into that small scope. Trebilcock sidesteps the typical freshman folly of aspiring to more than can be afforded by keeping the film’s feet within achievable ambitions. Bounds of a modest budget are barely noticeable when the script avoids asking for more than it can take.
Production value is instead pulled from a cast of familiar faces turning serviceable characters into moderately endearing personalities. Tapping into his collected and confident father figure from “Veronica Mars” (movie review here), Enrico Colantoni brings that same natural charm as Leah’s dad. Colantoni is forced to futz with some drab “dad dialogue” and unremarkable actions like collecting dishes and straightening a tie. Yet Colantoni’s subtle inflections infuse warmth into mundane moments, a quality for creating a character that only comes from experienced talent.
Stephen McHattie is a few forgettable films from becoming the Canadian Lance Henriksen. Long established as a reliable genre actor, McHattie’s starring roles have been frequently balanced by supporting parts that can shoot him out in two days, doing little to boost the venerable actor’s already extensive résumé. “The Dark Stranger” at least makes the most of his limited screen time. McHattie may not have too much to do, even in playing two characters, but he rarely fails to make an impact with his cold gaze and oddly threatening gaunt frame.
The film’s other strong suit is its animated interludes. Leah’s ongoing illustration of her graphic novel comes to life in a series of two-dimensional animated sequences with a slight Tim Burton tinge to their style. Leah’s artwork is key to creating a believable movie around the plot and the illustrations have an interesting edge that keeps the secondary story’s fantasy fascinating.
Merging that fantasy with reality causes some trouble during the last act rush to a resolution. A byproduct of the graphic novel skin on Leah’s imagination is that when characters are transported to a live-action version of her world, the scene looks like the set of a high school play. Forced frights are already laid on thick with conveniently-timed lightning flashes as McHattie spouts mouthfuls of third act exposition. Taking the threat of a bloody barbed-wire restraint seriously is hard to do when the victim is tied to a cartoon tree.
Lacking sustained energy equates to diminished longevity for “The Dark Stranger” in the long run. Mental illness metaphors also may not extend as deep as they can, though anyone drawn into subtext with substance for supernatural spooks can find intrigue here. Look past predictably pat scares like an under the bed hand or camera-passing shadow jumping to a “dun!” and you’ll see a thriller more thoughtful than it is terrorizing.
Review Score: 65