Depictions of clinical depression can make for some great horror set-ups. I say ‘set-ups’ because, while suicidal nightmares and schizophrenic unpredictability can each leverage their inherent tension, it’s all too easy to back up into the trap of tragic resolution, in which our troubled character sacrifices themselves to end everyone’s suffering (I’m thinking of one recent film in particular).
I won’t say which way The Dark Stranger goes, but it inevitably leads up to that point based on its plot. Art school student Leah (Kate Findlay) is still reeling from being the sole witness to her mother’s suicide. She doesn’t shower or eat, and is afraid to leave the house. Soon she is plagued by nightmarish visions of a dark spirit that resembles something from the graphic novel she had been creating.
As the lead, Findlay has almost all of the film to carry. A fresh-faced hybrid of Kat Dennings and Jane Levy, Findlay impresses in her laconic delivery, but lets herself down in any crying scene. Enrico Colantoni is believable as Leah’s caring father, and Stephen McHattie, made up to resemble Gary Oldman suffering a bad shipwreck hangover, cuts a competently looming figure as the titular Dark Stranger. But everybody else is either forgettable or just terrible at their lines.
The film has a lot to take on in its themes of mourning, depression, self-harm and family, and the the lines that can blur when an artist literally draws from their own personal traumas. It could have worked on its own without the horror elements, which detracted from the overall story solely because they were unpolished VFX. It ended up feeling like an episode of a lite-supernatural day drama, but this is director Chris Trebilcock‘s feature-length debut. Mental health horror isn’t a failed subgenre, but it takes creative resourcing and a seasoned group of cast and filmmakers to pull it off.