DreadWorld Review: The Dark Stranger (2015/2016)

One of the highlights of the Harry Potter series was during one of the last two films (I'm too lazy to do actual research) there was a break from the live action and the animated tale of the Three Brothers. It was a jarring break from the traditional narrative style for a series that operated almost exclusively in the box of a big budget traditional narrative. It was one of the most interesting and effective sequences in the entire 8 film franchise. Writer/director Chris Trebilcock employs they same device in his independent psychological horror film, The Dark Stranger, a mix between traditional narrative and one of the darker Neil Gaiman inspired fantasies.

Leah (Kate Findlay) is haunted by the suicide of her artist mother. Feeling responsible for her death, Leah struggles with depression, self cutting, and haunting visions. These visions seem to manifest themselves themselves as part of Leah's own artwork. As her dive down her depression driven artistic rabbit hole continues, her haunting visions soon manifest themselves as a physical being, threatening not only her but what is left of her family.

The Dark Stranger is an odd film. Like I mentioned above, Trebilcock splices Leah's animated artwork throughout the film. It creates two distinctive moiety's for the picture. The first is a very much reality grounded part of the narrative that deals with suicide, depression, coping, family struggles, and attempts at recovery. At times it feels like something you would find in a Saturday afternoon Lifetime movie. Generally, this is a big no no for my personal film enjoyment. The "depressed teenager" or "depressed, misunderstood artist" motif makes me want to throw something through my television.

However, Trebilcock laces the other parts of his film with enough fantasy and weirdness that the cliched parts of the film go down very easy. The films narrative turns from the internal conflict of an artist to something straight from a Neil Gaiman graphic novel, something Tribelcock clearly understands as there is a nice "Sandman" reference thrown in for good measure. He caps it off with a third act journey into a world that may have been cribbed from one of Guillermo Del Toro's forgotten Pan's Labyrinth notebooks. It's a strong pivot tonally that elevates what could be a run of the mill psychological thriller to something much better.

The other elevating factor for The Dark Stranger are the performances of its leads. Findlay as the tortured Leah is wonderful. Enrico Colantoni as her foil, the father that desperately wants to push her to get better, even when it becomes ugly and uncomfortable for us the viewer, is great. It's always nice to see someone who has made a name for themselves in mainstream comedies ("Just Shoot Me") excel at something different. Then there is Stephen McHattie. We here at DreadWorld believe that every film ever made should include Stephen McHattie. We are huge fans of Pontypool, particularly hos performance, and as expected he delivers here in spades. He rides the fence between is he or isn't he so well that even when he fall to one side of it you watch with a wary eye, not quite convinced.

The Dark Stranger will be a mixed bag of a film for some. It's not the type of film you fire up on a Saturday night with a couple of your buddies and a 12 pack. The film deals with some very real world issues, and certain folks may not feel comfortable. There are some obvious cliches that creep up (the dashing young man - who just happens to be interested in Leah's art) which are kind of painful. And, for those looking for a blood spattered gore fest, The Dark Stranger is certainly not for you.

The film is a dark psychological film with some fantastical elements and is succeeds in being just that. Tribelcock creates a haunting netherworld that coalesces the the picture in it's final act into something that elevates it above general Lifetime genre fare. Check out The Dark Stranger if you are a fan of Del Toro or Neil Gaiman or you wish for the days where Tim Burton wasn't a self parodying hack.

*** 1/2 stars out of *****

That's it for me. As always, thanks for reading and "enjoy every sandwich."

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