A STRANGER AMONG THE LIVING **** USA 2019 Dir: Chris Moore (Christopher Wesley Moore). 100 mins (final cut version: 94 mins)
In the world of American horror filmmaking, writer-director Chris Moore is becoming the One to watch, specialising in uncommonly smart, witty, character-driven indie genre films like BLESSED ARE THE CHILDREN (2016), TRIGGERED (2019) and now this modern-day appropriation of themes and images from distinctive 60’s and 70’s gems like CARNIVAL OF SOULS and MESSIAH OF EVIL. Like his earlier features, it pulls off bold tonal shifts while nodding to Moore’s obvious love of 80’s slashers (note the central setting of Hamilton High) and his adoration of John Carpenter. Luke Zwelsky, who scored TRIGGERED, has crafted a great tinkly, pounding synth soundscape akin to Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s work on the second and third HALLOWEEN movies, while Carpenter’s fondness for joy-buzzer jump scares and sleek widescreen suspense are recreated with finesse. STRANGER also has one of the best reworkings of a signature Carpenter scare from both HALLOWEEN and THE FOG involving a background corpse quietly sitting up in a funeral home.
Charismatic Jake Milton is a Jackson-based wannabe actor / schoolteacher literally haunted by a shooting at his school that leaves four teachers and seven students dead. His guilt and grief are accompanied by the unerring sense of being watched and stalked by…Something. It’s a necessarily sombre story with an eerie ambience and a downbeat conclusion, thoughtfully addressing themes of media exploitation, America’s treatment of its elderly and gun control : one dialogue exchange sees Milton reminded of how much “people like their guns round here” – “More than their children?!” is his astonished response. Like all of Moore’s features, however, it is shot through with marvellous observational humour. Characters reflect on losing their virginity at 23 and having three-way dreams involving Dwight Yoakum and Kevin Spacey. Moore writes himself a scene-stealing role as the wonderfully named Jarvis Coker (!), a flamboyant, weight-fixated palm reader (“according to this you’re already dead!”) all too eager to use the term “BFF”. The understated scenes between Jarvis and his loyal, loving husband are among the best in the picture. Like TRIGGERED (whose remarkable star Meredith Mohler has a supporting role here), it’s a shade too long, but it’s tough to carp while spending time with such well-defined characters – and so rare to see a genre picture built around such a likeable, emotionally vulnerable, genuinely frightened male lead.
Review by Steven West