The Vagrant

(Chris Walas, USA, 1992)


Close-up of a woman, Edie (Mitzi Kapture). She expresses love, sympathy, support for her partner. Then the sight of her starts to peel away from the camera, which itself reframes to reveal the situation: far from standing by her man, Edie is high-tailing it out of his homestead in a cab. It’s a beautiful, witty shot. Later on, another, related sequence-shot goes one better. In that same strip of street, a police car idles, keeping tabs on the activity within. The supervisor of this sting counsels his troops to take it slow and easy. Then the camera executes a similar reframing – this time, capturing the perfect choreography of one, two, six other squad cars arriving and lining up in a precise V-formation, set for the swoop. This is good cinema.


A curious and enjoyable film, which I wasn’t at all aware of at the time of its release in 1992, has swam back into availability 31 years later – and what an intriguing snapshot of once-current trends it turns out to be. Not to mention the assortment of personnel involved: celebrated special effects maestro Chris Walas (Cronenberg’s The Fly, 1986) signing his second and so far last feature as director – and vastly improving on his debut, The Fly II (1989); an up-for-it cast including Bill Paxton, Colleen Camp, Michael Ironside and Patrika Darbo; a script by Richard Jefferies, whose scattered career connects dots between British horror and Mike Figgis through to “uncredited work” on various contemporary sci-fi blockbusters; and, last but far from least, an Executive Producer credit to Mel Brooks (it’s a co-production of Brooksfilms Ltd. & Le Studio Canal+), whose determining influence on the material seems (to me, at least) prominent.


The film’s distinctive genre-mix and its smorgasbord credits list intermesh at many points and levels. Basically, it’s a horror-mystery-comedy of the kind that crystallised – with varying emphases – between the mid 1980s and early ‘90s. The opening sequence – with a camera roving all over the space of an office floor, ending up on the thoroughly gormless, nerdy, obsequious, typical worker Graham Krakowski (his surname will become a running gag) played by Paxton – instantly recalls the start of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), itself a kind of horrific, black comedy; there will be further echoes of this model as Graham’s adventures cross the path of several scary, predatory women. (Colleen Camp’s way of saying to Graham, in the role of realtor Judy Dansig, that she would like to ‘handle his property’ is, as the cliché goes, alone worth the price of admission.)


Graham, however, is not on a night out; rather, he is looking for a good but cheap house to own. Here enters the vast cycle of films – thrillers or comedies or both in one – about middle-class Americans moving into less-than-salubrious neighbourhoods, and immediately fretting about the consequences of this downwardly-mobile slide. Think of those films about creepy neighbours, such as Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989). Graham encounters a specific inflection of this issue: although he fits out his property with ever-fancier fences, lighting, gadgetry and alarm systems, a hideous figure referred to only as The Vagrant (Marshall Bell) always seems to manage to slip inside, to have a glass of water or eat a sandwich.


This vagrancy theme is especially interesting, as it sharpens – to the point of total and terrifying hysteria – the class-consciousness that is at the heart of so many movies in the loose-limbed cycle I’m describing. And here’s where Mel Brooks would appear to have made his deepest mark, since just a year earlier he had released his own Life Stinks (1991), a should-be-cult movie that, somewhat surprisingly, dives deep into the unlovely topic of homelessness.


The Vagrant works its way to a plot torsion reminiscent of the ambiguous premise of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). Graham starts having nightmares about his unwanted house guest. But it’s also established that, while dreaming, he has the tendency to sleepwalk – and to perform weird actions in that unconscious state. This is what so disturbs his girlfriend that she ends up clearing out via taxi. However, around 40 minutes into the 91-minute running time, the film takes an unexpected turn: Graham lives so much and so deeply in his fugue state (shades of the contemporaneous Twin Peaks here – and don’t forget the fortuitous Brooks/Lynch tie-up of The Elephant Man [1980], not to mention a similarly disgusting vagrant  figure in Mulholland Drive [2001]) that he himself discounts the reality of The Vagrant, and avows his potential for acute paranoia – even murder.


I won’t give away more for those who are (like me) discovering the movie just now but, suffice to say, the subsequent turns have a fast, giddy, surreal logic (especially in a terrific courtroom scene). Only the ultimate wrap-up (which brings in a quasi-Cape Fear [1992] backstory element) and the ‘it might all happen again’ coda (cued by a hauntingly dripping tap) seem rather pat.


The style of humour in The Vagrant is evidently in a Mel B. mode, sharpened by the story’s associations with thriller and horror genres (a prime gag involves a runaway corpse careening down public stairs). This reigning mode of burlesque tips adroitly over into the grotesque: actors mug, hit their heads whenever they wake up, fall over props and land into stinking piles of detritus (garbage, underwear, old food, body parts). The spirited, histrionic performance of all cast members recalls another catastrophic-sex-comedy/social mores variant, John McNaughton’s wonderful Speaking of Sex (2001).


The physical situation – renovating a house that gets progressively more burnt, shattered and torn apart – evokes another long line of comedies from Buster Keaton to Danny DeVito’s Duplex (2003), thus inciting another nearby genre (‘family relocation on a budget’), usually treated as light (if frequently neurotic) fun. But here is where the ‘80s-‘90s cycle I am treating becomes more specific: every character in The Vagrant is base, dopey and/or venal (even Graham’s best buddy snaps a celebrity-pic at his arrest); and cops, especially, are jaw-clenching, trigger-happy fascists (see Alan Spencer’s great Hexed [1993] – featuring Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermy as chief cop – or, later, Nicolas Winding Refn’s TV series Too Old to Die Young [2019]). Michael Ironside’s self-stylisation as Lt. Ralf Barfuss (!) is wonderful to behold – where Paxton flops, falls and stutters at every turn, Ironside is all tight, rigid, postural angles and spat-out line deliveries (every ‘smart’ thing he says being, of course, nonsense or non sequiturs).


A tricky, rhizomatic map could be drawn connecting the various actors through the mesh of genres I’ve indicated. Ironside in Scanners (1981); Paxton (1955-2017) in Weird Science (1985) and Near Dark (1987). Right down to the secondary parts: Darbo, here as trailer-park inhabitant Doattie (“Not Dotty!”, she corrects), is a veteran of The ‘Burbs and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), as well as the lesser-known Spaced Invaders (1990), and provider of distinctive voice-work from Babe (1995) to Soderbergh’s Kimi (2022). Other key films of the ‘80s-‘90s by DeVito (The War of the Roses, 1989) and Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her, 1992) are not far away from this intertextual swirl.


From a house in the ‘burbs, financed by a steady job as data analyst, to manager of a trailer-trash park, and desperate refuge in an abandoned, spooky funhouse (classic horror setting!) – such is the arc of downward mobility for Graham in this inventive, lively, but unfairly overlooked/forgotten film. It’s worth hunting out. And what a pity that Walas – active in effects and make-up work through to the 21st century – has not found further opportunities to direct.

© Adrian Martin 31 January 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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