The Vagrant (1992) Blu-ray Review: Baffling, but Never Boring Horror Film

The Vagrant has about four movies worth of themes and plots, but less than a single film’s coherence. It’s weird, tone-deaf, and kind of stupid. It’s not good, and I like it.

Bill Paxton stars as Graham Krakowski, an aspiring yuppie who is looking to buy his first house. He tries to overlook all the problems, including the real estate agent trying to jump his bones at the showing. He buys the house, but when he goes to move his things in, he finds a homeless man using the kitchen sink. Graham doesn’t say anything, but he’s sure the vagrant (hey, that’s the film’s title) is up to no good.

Eventually, he gets the man arrested, but he’s released with no charges. Then things get worse. A local woman is murdered. Graham is sure that the vagrant did it. He’s also sure the vagrant can sneak into his house, despite the security measures he’s put in that he can’t afford.

Trying to recite the plot of The Vagrant is difficult because it goes all over the place. There’s a ton of details that seem important that then fall by the way as the narrative moves on. Graham has an out-of-town girlfriend who visits, and then disappears from the story. Graham himself begins to descend into paranoia over his fears of the vagrant. He regularly sleep walks. He can’t remember if he’s done things or if they were done to him. Either he’s unraveling… or he’s being harassed.

It’s difficult to discuss what happens in the film without revealing pertinent plot details, which are this odd, tone-deaf, and wildly uneven movie’s chief source of entertainment. It starts out like a normal horror comedy but has such odd twists and turns that to anyone interested it would be criminal to spoil them. It’s like an unholy mélange of Brazil, a slasher movie, and some unrealized (and underimagined) ’80s Tim Burton film.

The chief problem of the film is one of tone. This is director Chris Walas’ second, and final feature. A master at special effects, (Gremlins, The Fly) he’d directed the not so great The Fly 2 years earlier. That was just a horror show. The script for The Vagrant balances comedy, horror, and social satire in such a way that it needs a deft touch with several elements of filmmaking, acting not least of all.

The Vagrant has a great cast. Bill Paxton is the beleaguered victim. Marshall Bell (from Starship Troopers and Total Recall) is the hideous vagrant. Michael Ironside is a suspicious police lieutenant. But these fine actors are not deployed well. The performances are incredibly broad. It seems at no time were they discouraged from wholesale chewing on the scenery, and they all indulged.

Chris Walas was a special effects and makeup man, and that’s where the movie shines. Though a largely down-to-earth story, there’s several opportunities for horror makeup to rear its grotesque head. The vagrant is disgusting, from his dead eye and scabby skin to his deformed hands and fingers. There’s scenes with severed body parts that are legitimately disturbing. And the film is shot with style. It just seems undetermined what style that should be.

There’s a number of intriguing possibilities brought up by the story. The crimes of the vagrant might be in Graham’s mind. Graham might be responsible himself. Every morning when he wakes up, his world seems completely different. There’s a lot to work with in this story world. But at some point the film’s imagination falters, and nothing is as interesting as it is teased to be.

But the movie is freaking crazy, and that’s worth something. There’s an underlying reason for the vagrant’s action. It’s wildly underdeveloped, but shows there’s some kind of brain behind this bizarre story. And several of the individual sequences are quite good. They do not hang together well because the tone of the film is too divergent.

But it’s not boring. It’s weird. But it is never monotonous. It falls apart in a more interesting way than many movies work. The Vagrant seems to be about a lot of things (homelessness, yuppie capitalism, human experimentation) but doesn’t stick the landing on any of them. In its stillborn way, however, it’s still more ambitious than most crummy horror movies. While it’s kind of scary, The Vagrant is not a great horror movie. There’s often a jokey tone, but it’s not funny. It’s a pretty good odd movie, though, for fans of oddness.

The Vagrant has been released by Arrow Video on Blu-ray. Video extras include “Vagrant Memories” (16 min), an interview with director Chris Walas; “You Are in Hell!” (15 min), an interview with Marshall Bell; “Barfuss, Homicide” (12 min), an interview with Michael Ironside; “Handling His Property” (12 min), an interview with Colleen Camp. There’s also a trailer and image gallery.

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Kent Conrad

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