|Katie Findlay in a star-making performance.|
The camera absolutely loves her.
Dir. Chris Trebilcock
Starring: Katie Findlay, Stephen McHattie, Enrico Colantoni,
Jennifer Dale, Mark O'Brien, Alex Ozerov, Emma Campbell
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Art and horror make for strange, but thoroughly appropriate bedfellows in life and art. True artists must be imbued with obsessive, self-reflective and often selfish qualities to create work of both originality and lasting value. Mental unbalance is not a pre-requisite, but comes in mighty handy amongst the best of the best.
The Dark Stranger is a curious and original genre film which delicately blends the elements of family drama, fairy tale (with literal graphic novel qualities) and outright horror (of the psychological and paranormal variety). Call it an everything including the kitchen sink motion picture experience which is buoyed by a superb cast and an overall one-of-a-kind directorial hand.
Leah Garrison (Katie Findlay, in a terrific star-making performance), is a young comic book artist in recovery from deep depression, a nervous breakdown and self-afflicted cutting. She lives with her loving university professor Dad (Enrico Colantoni) and typically goofy, but equally loving younger brother (Alex Ozerov) in a gorgeous, refurbished old house in one of the tonier (and leafier) neighbourhoods of downtown Toronto.
So, you might ask, what's this babe's problem?
Well, you'd possibly go bunyip too if your late mother (Emma Campbell), an acclaimed artist who passed mega-wads of talent DNA to her daughter, became increasingly agitated, irrational, roiling with rage and finally, exploding like Vesuvius - not only coming close to murdering her daughter, but in despair, offing herself. (It's also possible Leah inherited some wacko-psycho genes from Mommie Dearest to compliment her artistic gifts.)
Yup, I accept this.
During Leah's convalescence, a series of incidents converge to create a heady brew of horror. Witness: an art maven (Stephen McHattie) wishes to mount a show of her late mother's work, a series of nightmares involving an evil entity who serves as both artistic inspiration and tormenter and finally, an explosion of creativity that yields magnificent work, but in so doing, extracts the payment of self-mutilation.
Is this a psychological manifestation of the young Leah's despair, or is it something much more sinister and downright unholy? Or could it be both? Whatever it proves to be, we're offered a slowly mounting creepy-crawly terror that eventually releases a geyser of outright dread.
The Dark Stranger will certainly feel a bit oddball to audiences accustomed to a lowest common denominator story structure. The family drama elements border on an After-School-style special, the fairly tale aspects (reflected by gorgeously animated renderings of Leah's art) feel more suited to that curious blend of Grimm darkness and gentle naiveté inherent in the classic Soviet Gorky Studios fairy tales of the 60s and the horror itself blends David Cronenberg-like body mutilation with dollops of Clive Barker and Italian gialli thrown in for good measure. Add to this mix a dash or two of romance twixt Leah and her father's Teaching Assistant (Mark O'Brien) and the occasional visits from a well-meaning, but alternately annoying and sinister psychiatrist (Jennifer Dale).
And yes, there will be blood.
|Veteran character actor Stephen McHattie.|
Villain? Or hero? Or both?
On yet another level, whether consciously intentional or not, the film provides a unique villain - the sort of entity many artists, especially in the film business, must face - the bureaucrat, the executive, the holder of the purse strings - that soul-bereft entity which causes the greatest confusion and turmoil within genuine creative people. Here our villain takes on properties of split-personality-like malevolence. (Like I said, not unlike the aforementioned gatekeepers.)
On one level, I did wish the more naturalistic aspects of the story had been tempered with a slightly otherworldly mise-en-scene to deflect from the more conventional family drama tropes which stick out like moderately sore thumbs. Ultimately though, this potentially fatal flaw is overshadowed. The Dark Stranger gradually and eventually takes hold with a vicelike grip, offering as many moments of genuine terror as it serves up genuine heartfelt emotion.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-Half-Stars
The Dark Stranger is playing at the 2015 Toronto Blood in the Snow Film Festival.