The use of the supernatural in horror is always a mixed bag. If used ambiguously, a la The Shining, or as a metaphor for something psychological, such as in The Babadook, then bring those ghosts and specters on! However, in domestic horror, particular the mainstream PG-13 shit currently clogging the multiplexes, the supernatural is all-too-often used as a lazy storytelling device to either provide the feeblest of scares, or, if introduced in the third act, to rewrite and undermine all the rules established in the first two thirds.
The Dark Stranger, written and directed by Chris Trebilcock, has its heart in the right place. It explores depression and artistry but straddles the fence a little too much between the literal and the allegorical when it comes to its supernatural elements. As such, the film can’t be fully praised, but it can’t be outright buried either.
Leah Garrison (Katie Findlay in an endearing and grounded performance) is a young graphic novelist struggling with depression and agoraphobia since the suicide of her alcoholic, artist mother – a death which Leah blames herself for. Her fears manifest in hallucinations, and she sees literal monsters in everyday observances such as a man walking by talking on his cellphone or a neighbor taking out the trash. Thus, she whiles away her days at home inside, unable to create and in the company of her supportive father (Enrico Colantoni) and somewhat resentful brother.
Her self-made safety bubble threatens to burst when her dad introduces someone new into her world, an art exhibitor named Randall Toth. Toth is interested in showing Leah’s mom’s art in an exhibition that deals with artists who battled depression. A distraught Leah returns to self-harm, and a blood stain on her canvas materializes into a sinister visage – that of the Dark Stranger.
Suddenly, Leah has a burst of creativity and is able to resume her auto-biographical sequential art, albeit with the Dark Stranger now a pivotal character in her story. Her bouts of creation and story-telling are rendered beautifully in lush animated sequences designed by Sean Scoffield and rendered by Key Frame Digital.
As Leah’s artistry becomes more prolific, the Dark Stranger becomes equally more prevalent – both Randall Toth and the Dark Stranger are played by veteran character actor Steven McHattie (Pontypool). On the good side, she seems to tentatively emerge from her dark cocoon, but on the negative, others in her circle such as her psychiatrist begin to suffer grisly fates.
It is here where the audience must ask themselves, “Is the Dark Stranger (the character) a metaphorical psychological representation of Leah’s demons, or is he a living breathing monster made flesh?” If the answer is the former, the film is thus much more successful. Unfortunately, too many signs point to the latter, and in that case, the Dark Stranger becomes a neutered Freddy Krueger turned aesthete who feeds on drawings instead of souls.
The examination of the link between depression and creativity is wonderful fodder for a horror film and there are elements of the film that work very well, particularly the performances and the direction. However, when the demon that is depression threatens to become too literal in the final act, the film starts to lose the sober gravitas that it so expertly built up during the first hour.
Nonetheless, a solid effort from Trebilcock, whom I suspect has a few more interesting tales to tell in future films.
*** (out of five)