Horror fiction often is at its best when we can associate its fantastic monsters with our own concerns, frustrations, and anxieties. But outright allegory requires something of a deft touch to keep its subtext from becoming a sermon. Case in point: The Dark Stranger, the début feature from writer/director Chris Trebilcock.
Katie Findlay stars as Leah Garrison, a young graphic novelist recovering from the suicide of her troubled artist mother, which left her with a severe case of agoraphobia. When local art patron Randall Toth (veteran character-actor Stephen McHattie) approaches Leah’s father (Enrico Colantoni, perhaps best known as Veronica Mars’s dad) bout the prospect of showing Leah’s mother’s work as part of an exhibition focusing on artists and depression, Leah zealously pushes back, sensing Toth is not all that he seems. Moreover, Leah’s latest work, an allegorical fantasy based on her struggle with mental illness, is taking a strong toll on her. And is it just a coincidence that its villain, the Dark Stranger, looks exactly like Randall Toth?
While Treblicock certainly means well and handles issues such as depression, alcoholism, and self-harm with sensitivity, I can’t help but feel that the film’s supernatural elements distract from the main narrative. Indeed, the story gets along just fine for much of its running time without even confirming the Stranger’s existence outside Leah’s work. Speaking of, Trebilcock juxtaposes the main narrative with animated excerpts from Leah’s work in progress. While the art style has a unique charm, the parallel story doesn’t really tell us anything we haven’t already figured out, and often feels like padding.
The “real-life” story doesn’t fare much better. The film’s tone doesn’t convince the audience of the stakes or impart a feeling of danger; one never doubts that Leah will eventually overcome and defeat the Stranger and, by extension, her fears and anxieties. This leaves most of the suspense to ride on the identity and nature of the Stranger, who turns out to possess a perfunctory origin story. This leads to the film’s anticlimactic resolution of the conflict, made all the more disappointing by Trebilcock’s good intensions.
What The Dark Stranger does have in its favor is a strong cast with good chemistry, particularly between Findlay, Colantoni, and Alex Ozerov (as Leah’s younger brother Toby), who possess a credibly familial dynamic. Mark O’Brien and Jennifer Dale, respectively playing Leah’s love interest and therapist, do quite well with their somewhat underdeveloped roles. Only the usually-dependable McHattie disappoints, by coming on too strong as Toth and playing too much for camp as the Stranger.
Ultimately I feel bad about not liking The Dark Stranger, as Trebilcock’s goals are certainly laudable and his heart so obviously in the right place. But it simply doesn’t succeed in what it wants to do. If nothing else, it’s a good example of how not to tell a story like this.