Following the death of her husband, the grieving proprietor of a small hotel finds her life turned further upside down with the arrival of a mysterious guest in Mike Clarke & Paul Gerrard’s The Stranger.
The past few years have seen an increase in the genre of folk horror with directors as diverse as Ben Wheatley, Robert Eggars, and Ari Aster all giving us their take on this fear of the unknown. Folk horror often uses elements of folklore to invoke dread within its audience, things like solitary locations, feelings of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes. Most, if not all of these elements, are found in The Stranger, a cracking independent horror from the UK that, despite its generic title, is anything but.
One thing is for certain writer/director of The Stranger, Mike Clarke has seen Midsommer but what is also certain is that he has also seen the classics of the genre too. Add to that anything by Dario Argento, Wes Craven, and Clive Barker and you might just be able to understand the visceral horror film that Clarke and his directing partner Gerrard have made here. Opening with a scene that is pure Giallo in its dramatism, Clarke and Gerrard manage to convey oppressive dread in the most meaningful sense. The Stranger contains a grief-soaked story involving a house robbery that completely destroys a family and, in order to escape this past, Amanda (played by Jennifer Preston) and her daughter Karli (Isabella Percival) move to an isolated bed and breakfast in the British countryside. As they settle into their new surroundings a creepy yet charismatic stranger named Kyle (Damien Ashley) comes into their lives, initially asking to stay the night. As the days go by, Karli and Amanda grow increasingly concerned about Kyle’s behaviour, and when he confesses to the real reason for needing sanctuary the horror really begins.
What makes The Stranger such a unique and interesting film is that it owes as much to blockbuster action films like The Terminator and Predator as it does to the horror of its direct influences. The name Kyle is the most obvious nod to The Terminator, but Damien Ashley’s performance also invokes memories of Michael Biehn’s intense portrayal of tortured souls doing their duty, especially during the few action-orientated scenes. The Stranger’s Kyle is a devious, cold-blooded liar and certainly no hero, but Ashley manages to garner the audience’s sympathy for him and sells the role convincingly. Jennifer Preston remains stoic and unflustered as the brave matriarch, while Isabella Percival shines as Karli – a girl who may just hold the key to the entire situation. Special mention has to also go to Lindy Pieri who gives us a creepily effective supporting villain.
The lushly lit cinematography by Neil Oseman enables the dark spaces on the inside to feel suffocating and overbearing to the audience, while external shots in mist-filled woods, helped by Iain Cash’s grading, manage to capture some atmospheric compositions. The directing team of Clarke and Gerrard also deserve praise for producing a couple of eerie moments that are so specifically imagined, even if you think you have seen them before they still feel fresh and new. With Ashley Wright’s editing maintaining the pace and music by The High Priest adding to the atmosphere, The Stranger is almost the complete package. For an independent film, the credit list is huge, but the quality of all the camera, lighting, and sound crew’s work is top class as is the special effects team who have managed to create quite a memorable movie monster.
The Stranger is a fine film from a directing team who come across as not just wanting to open the door but to kick it down and I can only see this unsettling and startlingly confident debut feature film leading all involved to bigger and better things.