The label “Eli Roth Presents” is becoming positively ubiquitous on the purportedly “indie” horror scene lately — to the point, one could convincingly argue, that it probably doesn’t even really mean anything anymore. And yet, writer/director Guillermo Amoedo (who hails from Uruguay but makes his movies in Chile) seems to have at least something of a bona fide working relationship with Roth insofar as he penned the screenplay for The Green Inferno, so maybe ol’ Eli isn’t just helping himself to an air-quote credit as executive producer on the film we’re here to talk about today, 2014’s The Stranger (no relation to Albert Camus’ existentialist classic) — or maybe he is. I dunno. And I guess I don’t really care all that much, either, because it’s not like he would have all that much to do with the finished product here even if he did help cobble together financing, distribution, or whatever it is executive producers do. This flick is clearly Amoedo’s baby, and any praise and/or scorn for it should rest squarely on his shoulders.
As a fairly recent addition to the Netflix streaming queue that got, as far as I know at any rate, zero theatrical play here in the US, detailed analyses of the film are frustratingly hard to come by at this point, but I hope to do my best to alleviate that situation by chiming in here with my two cents’ worth, and what better time than now given that I literally just finished watching the thing?
Right off the bat The Stranger assumes for itself something of an other-worldly tone in that it supposedly takes place in a small Canadian town, but the settings and characters are all distinctly Latin American. I really don’t have a beef with that sort of strictly formal incongruity and find that it can do a nice job of telegraphing to audiences that what they’re watching is anything but a “reality-based” story, but for those of you whose suspension of disbelief is immediately shattered by anything that doesn’t correspond to the world as we know it, well — be warned that you might be in for something of a tough slog here.
Which is your loss, really, because Amoedo has crafted a deceptively ambitious little number here that, while far from flawless and far from fast-paced, is nevertheless a reasonably immersive viewing experience that drops plenty of subtle hints in between bouts of stomach-churning violence and does a nice job of layering generous helpings of mystery both over the top of and underneath its more visceral main narrative. All of which is just my pretentious-ass way of saying that if you’re willing to pay somewhat close attention to the proceedings on offer, you’ll remain glued to your seat.
Our central focus here is on a drifter-ish character named Martin (played by Cristobal Tapia Montt — who is, hopefully for his sake, no relation to Rios) who wanders into an unnamed (remember, Canadian) town one night and shows up at the doorstep of the home shared by wannabe-delinquent Peter (Nicolas Duran) and his mother, Monica (Alessandra Guerzoni), demanding to know the whereabouts of his apparently-estranged girlfriend, Ana (Lorenza Izzo).
The two of them know where she is alright — the cemetery. And while visiting her grave, he’s set upon by a local group of real delinquents, led by a young punk named Caleb (Ariel Levy), who beat the shit out of our ostensible “hero” and, they’re convinced, leave him for dead.
Except, of course, he’s not, and Peter, who’s seen the entire altercation (a polite way of putting things to be sure since Martin doesn’t even really seem to fight back), takes his bruised-and-bloodied new “friend” home, despite Martin’s protestations that his blood is, in fact, contagious.
Wouldn’t ya just know, Caleb’s father, Inspector De Luca (Luis Gnecco) just so happens to be “top cop” in town, and so he’s in, shall we say, a very advantageous position when it comes to covering up his son’s criminal hijinks, but soon enough it won’t matter anyway — Martin’s very presence in town sets off a violent and sometimes surprising chain of events, and about the only thing that’s really predictable here is the fact that he avoids sunlight and drinks blood. On that note, then, I think it’s safe to assume that you know what Martin is (and if you’re especially thick or slow on the uptake, this film’s alternate title, Bad Blood, should more or less give it away) — but trust me when I say that what he’s up to hardly follows the standard formula.
Amoedo’s script could use a little bit of fine-tuning as far as its pacing goes, and the acting from all parties other than the superbly-cast Montt can veer into decidedly wooden territory at times, but these flaws are more than compensated for by superb atmospherics throughout, inventive camera work, smart editing choices, and an intelligent musical score. The whole may end up being greater than the sum of its parts here, but what the heck — most of those parts really aren’t too shabby in and of themselves, either.
Let’s be honest — when you’re dealing with subject matter as tried-and-true as vampirism (whether actual or implied), the most you can really ask is that what you’re getting is an interesting, dare I say even fresh, new take on things. The Stranger definitely provides that much and even a little more, and while not everything Amoedo tries to do here is necessarily all that successful, enough of it is to ensure that, for the most part, his film is able to break from the mold and stand out in comparison to the vast majority of its ilk. Maybe I’m just an easy mark, or maybe too may years of watching dull and predictable horror movies has worn down my resolve to the point where I go in expecting to get burned and end up pleasantly surprised whenever I’m not, but hey — that’s all it takes, at least in the instance at hand, for me to recommend that you give this one a shot.