The Dark Stranger (2015)
The Dark Stranger, written and directed by Chris Trebilcock, has a strong core conceit that it unfortunately executes haphazardly. Katie Findlay (How to Get Away with Murder) stars as Leah, a young artist who has become agoraphobic and hallucination-prone as she attempts to process the trauma of losing her mother to suicide. Leah has taken to cutting as a coping method, and when we first meet her she is experiencing artists’ block. She ends up cutting herself at her desk and wiping her blood on her paper, the blood morphing into the sinister shape of the “Dark Stranger” (Stephen McHattie) on the page. After this, she experiences an outpouring of productivity. She begins a graphic novel that mirrors her own life, albeit in a fantastical setting. This graphic novel features the titular Dark Stranger, who follows her comic book surrogate with evil intent while beginning to appear in the world outside of the page.
The core conceit mentioned above is that the figure of the Dark Stranger functions as an apt metaphor for depression, and The Dark Stranger is very interested in the relationship between artists, art, and depression. Specifically, how engaging in the creative process while depressed can either be therapeutic, or can be an act of wallowing that compounds one’s negative emotions. Where The Dark Stranger falters, however, is that it does not appear to have the faith in either itself or its audience to let that metaphor play out on its own. Instead, it insists on having the characters explain the action and themes via numerous bouts of exposition.
Images courtesy of Terror Films
For the most part, the scares in the film are of the jump variety, and the majority of them fall flat. Barring a couple of sequences, the film does not align the content of its scares to its metaphorical interests, which feels like a missed opportunity. Leah has various spooky hallucinations, but they have no real weight because they have no connection to the larger ideas of the narrative. The scenes that I found effective were those that engaged in the ideas that the characters talked about – when content and form ran side-by-side, rather than existing in intervals.
For instance, there’s a moment when the Dark Stranger menaces Leah as she is doing laundry. This feels true to life, as depression can strike at mundane times, and trauma can render the average terrifying. Likewise, the film flirts with body horror when Leah finds her pen has fused with her hand, visualizing the oft-compulsive nature of self-destruction.
The film also utilized animated sequences to show Leah’s progress in her graphic novel. I quite liked these for their uniqueness, and their presence throughout the film helped make a third-act shift more effective than it would have been otherwise. These sequences, however, also fall victim to the larger pattern of relying heavily on exposition to carry the narrative.
Ultimately, The Dark Stranger is a flawed but interesting movie. I cannot totally lambaste a movie that actively engages in metaphorical storytelling, and there are neat visual ideas at work here. However, an over-reliance on exposition, an inconsistency in visuals and an uncertainty in how to effectively execute scares mar the overall experience.
Dave's Final Review
The film has an interesting premise and imaginative ideas that ultimately get hampered by their execution. I enjoyed the exploration of depression and trauma, as well as the style of the animated sequences, but I wish that overall it was better enacted and less reliant on exposition to tell its story.