Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tonally Vague Vagrant

There is some right and much wrong about Chris Walas's The Vagrant, a '92 example of dueling tones.

I suspect it's meant to be a black comedy, but it's not consistent. When it gets serious, it just feels stupid. When it tries for over-the-top, it undercuts its virtues with characters such as a straight cop played by Michael Ironside; he drops in now and then from another movie and acts according to the scriptwriter's demands.

A film that walked the tonal line with greater dexterity was John Avildsen's Neighbors, a long-time favorite of mine. That was a terrific black comedy that knew what it was (and wasn't), and did its mean-spirited best to deliver on that promise.

The Vagrant, from exec producer Mel Brooks, is about a slightly paranoid analyst (Bill Paxton) whose life is turned upside down by a hideous homeless man (Marshall Bell). When corpses begin turning up in the area, he's sure the vagrant is the murderer. The police aren't so sure. And therein lies the drama. Sort of.

The 'vagrant' (Bell) is a fine example of what can be done with latex and an eager make-up effects team. Every time he's on screen, he's disgusting, and his initial appearances are amusing and creepy. Clearly, he's not disgusting enough, though, because he's required to hiss and cackle non-stop to further underline his disgusting status. After a while, he's not funny, scary, or disgusting -- he's a joke! (in a bad way)

Paxton has fun with his role, and goes from corporate ladder climber to trailer park trash in a single bound. Never once did I feel director Walas had a handle on what type of film this was supposed to be. A black comedy is usually played straighter than straight; this isn't. A serious thriller attempts, at least, to get its logic in order; this certainly doesn't. Instead, it test drives every tone in the book and arrives no wiser for the journey.

Even the artwork screams for direction!

In March, '95, this short story by Douglas D. Armstrong appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine; a fairly serious piece, it focused on the main character's descent into madness with much greater consistency and strength.

Despite my misgivings about The Vagrant, I was still glad to spend a few hours in his company.


  1. This has been on my queue for a while. I love Bill Paxton's face on the cover. At least it will be good for a joke if nothing else.

  2. Chris Walas, isnt he the make up effects guy? I believe he was also responsible for directing the fx heavy The Fly II, which I thought was pretty solid. I would like to check this one out soon, thanks for the review.

  3. BMB -- definitely good for a joke. Certainly not boring.


    TFC -- Yes, Walas made FLY 2. I wanted to like this more, but the uneven tone handicapped it.