It’s time once again for the Toronto International Spring of Horror & Fantasy Film Festival (TISH)! Saturday’s feature film was The Stranger (2020). Originally produced as a Quibi series (RIP, Quibi), The Stranger has since been compiled into a feature-length film that chronicles the 12 hours of horror experienced by an ill-fated rideshare driver after a routine evening pick-up kicks off an improbable night of trauma.
Clare (our favourite scream queen Maika Monroe, phenomenal as always) is new to Los Angeles, a small-town Kansas girl who is chasing her dream of becoming a writer. Carl E. (a perfectly cast Dane DeHaan) is a sociopathic misogynist with a wicked stalking habit and delusions of cracking the code of human psychology. Initially intrigued by the charming young man she has picked up from a mansion in the hills, Clare soon finds herself trapped in a deadly game of cat and mouse—after her quick thinking derails his plans to kill her during their ride, he spends the rest of the film toying with her while attempting to finish the job. Along the way, Clare meets JJ (an excellent performance by Avan Jogia), a charmingly nerdy gas station attendant who eagerly volunteers to assist Clare and offers the narrative a few much-appreciated opportunities for levity (though the funniest moment in the film has to be an extremely LA joke regarding driving directions). Roxana Brusso has a small but memorable appearance as Captain Vasquez, a sympathetic police officer willing to give Clare a helping hand after Carl E.’s violent exploits catch the attention of the entire city—with some mixed results.
Writer and director Veena Sud teases out the terror throughout the run-time, artfully weaving in the inexplicable and unsettling moments that keep both the characters and the audience off-balance and unsure. Sud has called The Stranger a revenge story and an homage to #MeToo, and the film excels in this. In addition to misogyny, the film touches on vital and always-timely issues such as systemic racism and police brutality. I also see it as a modern fairy tale, a warning about the big bad wolves who will come for us if we share too much of ourselves online—if we become too visible. Carl E. at times displays near-supernatural omniscience and omnipresence which is hand-waved away in the story as a superb command of tech, but also works if we conceive of him as a powerful technological boogeyman of dark digital folklore and your parents’ paranoid warnings; the thing that goes “ping” in the night.
TISH’s screening of The Stranger was preceded by writer/director/producer Christian Bachini’s short film Escalation (2021), a stylish, fast-paced, and immaculately gory tour-de-force that repels the gaze just as much as it demands it. The short’s deceptively simple premise is elevated by its compelling camera work, pitch-perfect performance, and impressive production values (loved the music in particular!).