The Stranger comes to us as the latest vampire film to never admit it’s ACTUALLY a vampire film, because labeling yourself as a “vampire movie” just isn’t cool anymore. I’m sorry – if your character hates the sun, drinks blood and is immortal, he or she is a vampire. Deal with it.
While filmmaker Guillermo Amoedo proves to have a keen cinematic eye, this nightmarish infection thriller ends up being a big ol’ bowl of MEH. Presented by horror maestro Eli Roth, this Chilean thriller does have the atmospheric chills of a good mysterious-drifter-fueled caper, but some transitional techniques struggle to make Amoedo’s work flow seamlessly for international audiences. It’s a shame when audio dubbing reflects negatively on a cinematic watch, and while it’s something we try to ignore, one can’t help but be taken out of the fantasy on screen by voices that clearly don’t belong. But movies are a full-package experience, and must be digested as such.
Cristobal Tapia Montt stars a Martin, an unknown man who begins searching for his wife Ana (Lorenza Izzo) in a small Canadian town. He’s greeted by Peter (Nicolás Durán), a local graffiti tagger, when knocking on the door of a house where she’s suspected to be, which leads to his discovery of her passing. While sitting silently on a bench, he’s hassled by local thugs and left for dead, which law enforcement officer Lt. De Luca (Luis Gnecco) attempts to cover up by burying Martin’s presumably lifeless corpse. Unbeknownst to him, however, Peter finds Martin still breathing, brings him home, and sparks a violent series of events that turn the town into a blood-soaked bit of Hell.
Amoedo showcases a penchant for brooding, dark imagery through his stranger’s journey, particularly when exploring the sleepy civilization Martin has descended upon. Peter’s nightly painting routine and drug problem speak to the utter desolation that echoes throughout the empty streets, and Martin’s graveyard visitation scene is haunted by tombstones that represent even more doomy gloom. The Stranger feels like a seedy backwoods horror film where every character knows everyone else’s business, which allows for unspeakably corrupt acts to be carried out without a nagging sense of unbelievability. Small towns often hold the biggest secrets, and Amoedo does right by exposing them.
But when characters begin to speak, distractions start to fly. Some of the actors chat in perfect English, like Aaron Burns’ inquisitive Officer Harris, yet every time Lt. De Luca opens his mouth, a foreign voice dubs over his English-speaking lips. Like one of those cheesy so-doesn’t-belong voices with awkward annunciation and a tone that doesn’t quite match Gnecco’s facial expressions. With Roth’s recent focus on Chilewood (his pairing with Nicolás López and their recently produced projects), there’s an obvious strive to keep commercial appeal in mind, and it’s felt harder in The Stranger because of the Canadian location. English might be the first language of the film, but it’s clearly a second language for most of the talent involved, and there’s no covering that up. And when it is covered up, the problem only intensifies.
Dialogue isn’t Amoedo’s only issue, though. There’s intrigue in Martin’s story when he meets Peter, and De Luca’s shady police work opens up curious new doors in terms of conflict, but the inclusion of a villainous “vampire” force to battle Martin downgrades any suspenseful chills to easy monster material. Ana barely registers throughout the film, despite being the motivation for Martin’s journey, and instead he finds himself fighting against a common criminal named Caleb (Ariel Levy) – De Luca’s son, nonetheless.
After being badly burned in a brawl, Caleb finds himself infected with Martin’s healing blood, and is forced to adjust when his veracious thirst for human life becomes unquenchable. Martin, fixated on exterminating anyone with the same cursed fate, hunts a rookie adversary in Caleb, who kills anyone in his path without any hesitation. But the tussle is so very simple, and Amoedo strays away from more compelling material highlighted by Martin’s acceptance of death in the name of human survival. Instead, the climax is just another throat-ripping ghoul fest.
With that said, Caleb’s cosmetic artistry does look vicious enough to promote a scarce bit of horror, even when Martin appears human upon any glance. But as the story openly struggles to find a coherent identity, The Stranger plays out in a forcibly sloppy manner; one that doesn’t match Roth’s influence or Amoedo’s own atmospheric grasp. It’s a strangely over-glorified vampire flick that tries to remain hidden from the blinding light of clarity, yet the film’s own simplicity can’t be kept out of sight for long. No favors are done as far as production is concerned, and while mass appeal certainly shouldn’t be argued, one has to wonder why The Stranger was even set in an English-speaking territory at all. I’d rather tolerate subtitled words than rigid, soulless script reading that’s dubbed over actual actors, and I’m pretty sure you’ll all agree.
The Stranger is a murky drifter story with vampiric influences, but what starts as a mysterious quest soon turns into just another run-of-the-mill monster movie.