The Vagrant

Director: Chris Walas
Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside, Marshall Bell

I don't get bored that often - with so many movies out there to be watched by me via television broadcasts, DVD, Blu-ray, VHS, and online sources, I usually find myself enjoying my leisure time immensely. But during those rare times that I don't have anything to do, my mind starts to wander, and quite often I think about stuff that has happened to me in the past. And quite often one of those things that happened to me in the past that I start to think about is probably one of the things you start to think about during your own boring periods - your time in school. I feel I should mention that there are a lot of painful school memories for me that I try not to think about. Instead, I think about the few pleasant experiences, as well as the unusual school experiences I had. Many of those unusual school experiences are memories of my junior high English classes. Huh? you are saying. Let me explain some of the strange stuff that happened to me in English class. For starters, I had an instructor who it seemed every week would not only assign us to write a four hundred word essay, but with the strangest topics. Another unusual thing I observed was how obsessive our reading assignments were regarding racism and prejudice. Book after book we read dealt with racism/prejudice and how bad it was: The Light In The Forest, In The Heat Of The Night, The Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Of Mice And Men were just some of the books we were made to read that dealt with racism and prejudice and how bad it was. Speaking of racism and prejudice, at one point we read in a book a scenario about survivors of a nuclear war in a shelter with limited food and water, and we were to decide which of the varied survivors could stay and who would be booted out - an assignment that I later learned was banned by several school districts in North America for being far too controversial.

But I also remember that I learned plenty of things in junior high English class that I not only didn't know before, but helped in part to prepare me for running and maintaining this web site. One of those things was learning about four basic kinds of literary conflict - which this budding movie buff soon realized could be applied to feature films as well. The first and most common of these conflicts was Man Vs. Man. That, of course, means when one human character has some sort of conflict with another human. This can be seen in movies like Baker County, U.S.A. Another conflict is Man Vs. Nature. This is of course a conflict with the environment or some type of animal, which can be seen in movies such as Dogs. The third kind of conflict to be found in literature or film is Man Vs. Society. That of course involves some character having a problem with his culture, something that can be found in movies such as Skeletons. The fourth kind of conflict to be found in books or on the screen is Man Vs. Self. This involves some character whose biggest obstacle is himself for some reason or another, and that can be seen in movies such as the horror movie Deranged, where the central character became insane. My being taught of these conflicts was pretty basic at the time, but as the years passed, I realized some new things about these conflicts. One of those things was learning that the conflict doesn't always have to be serious in nature - how many comedies have we seen where one character is in conflict with another or with society? Another thing that I realized was that you don't always have to stick with one such conflict in a story - you can have more than one of those four conflicts happen with equal strength in a story.

Which bring me to the movie I am reviewing here, The Vagrant. This is a movie that mixes two of those conflicts together - Man Vs. Man and Man Vs. Self. That by itself is interesting. But there was additional interest with the movie for me. I knew it was produced by the one and The Vagrantonly Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles), and that it was handled by a major Hollywood studio. But the studio only released the movie to eight theaters, where it quickly died. And for some reason, when it was initially released on home video, none of my city's video stores got a copy. But a few years ago it finally got a DVD release and later a Blu-Ray release, and I managed to get my hands on it at last. In the movie, actor Bill Paxton (Aliens) plays a fellow by the name of Graham Krakowski, a yuppie who is on a roll. His position in the company he works at has been slowly but surely rising, and he is engaged to his long time girlfriend Edie (Mitzi Kapture, Angel III: The Final Chapter). So he decides it's the right time to buy his first house. With the help of real estate agent Judy Dansig (Coleen Camp, Foxforce), he manages to get what seems to be a nice home in a nice neighborhood. But not long after putting his money down, he discovers a problem. An unnamed vagrant (Bell, Seven Minutes In Heaven) living in the neighborhood soon makes his presence known, and starts to make a severe nuisance of himself, from public urination to breaking into Graham's home. Graham tries the obvious routes to deal with the problem, like calling the cops, but the vagrant keeps appearing. Eventually Graham starts experiencing more serious problems, like finding body parts of people he knows stashed in his home. The disappearances of Graham's associates soon bring in a determined investigating cop named Ralf Barfuss (Ironside, Neon City) into his life, bringing in even more stress. Graham soon starts to wonder if he is losing his mind, believing that he himself is causing the murders and that the vagrant is simply a delusion in his crumbling mind.

It would be understandable after what you have read in the previous paragraph makes you uncertain as to what kind of movie The Vagrant is. On one hand, my plot description probably sounded pretty serious. On the other hand, the movie was produced by Mel Brooks, and Brooks is best known for comedy projects when it comes to producing (though he has produced some serious films, like The Elephant Man.) So is the movie serious or comic in nature? As it turns out, it's both. And as both of those things turn out, neither side manages to succeed in its intentions. I'll first start with analyzing the serious side of the movie. The serious side of the movie fails in two ways. The first way is with telling a coherent story. While the core of The Vagrant does manage to make sense throughout the ninety-one minute running time, there are several moments when footage seems missing. For example, the character of Graham gets way concerned about the vagrant too early in the movie, calling the police in a panic when the vagrant is just doing his business in an empty lot across from the street. Later on, Graham says he tried following the vagrant but lost track of him, something we didn't see. Subsequently, his girlfriend leaves him after just one panic attack by Graham concerning the vagrant - hardly enough grounds for terminating an engagement. Further on in the movie, after discovering body parts in his basement, he mentions to the police that he thought the bad smell was coming from rats and that he had put poison in the basement - another thing we didn't see. An eventual arrest and trial for a key character lasts only a couple of minutes of screen time at most. I don't know if unclear and way too brief moments such as these were a result of The Vagrant being chopped down in the editing room, or were how they were originally scripted by screenwriter Richard Jefferies (Cold Creek Manor). But either way, certain plot details often feel extremely rushed and sloppy, and leave the viewer feeling somewhat bewildered at times.

That's one part of the serious side of The Vagrant. The other part - the serious touches in the story that we actually get to see - isn't that much more successful. The character of the vagrant does look somewhat creepy thanks to a superb makeup job. But the character's creepiness doesn't extend much further by other parts of the movie, mainly because of the script. The movie tries to make the vagrant a mysterious figure that we in the audience can't be sure is a real figure or a figment of the imagination of the character of Graham. Unfortunately, the movie early on - and more than once - puts the vagrant in a certain situation that makes it perfectly clear to us as to the question of whether he is real or is a hallucination. So there is absolutely no surprise when near the end of the movie there is a so-called "surprise revelation". And because of the truth being known early on, it's hard to be creeped out by the vagrant in all of his scenes. Director Chris Walas (The Fly II) also blows other serious moments in the movie that don't involve the vagrant, the aforermentioned scene of Graham finding body parts in his basement being just one example. This may be because he seems more concerned with delivering laughs instead of chills and seriousness. Indeed, the screenplay he was working with does focus more on humor instead of terror. Does any of the humor in The Vagrant work? Well, there are some mildly amusing moments, but as it turns out, it's more due to the cast than the writing and direction. Actor Marc McClure (Superman), playing the best friend of the character of Graham, plays most of his scenes with a low key, almost sarcastic tone that is extremely welcome, like an island in a sea of manic behavior. Actor Stuart Pankin (Earthbound) has a few scenes as Graham's boss that are pretty goofy in tone, but Pankin gives them a warm delivery that make them equally as inviting.

As it turns out, those two supporting characters are the only ones that deliver any real humor in The Vagrant. Coleen Camp goes so overboard as a horny and determined real estate agent that it's like she's mocking the audience. Mitzi Kapture gets no opportunity to deliver humor. And Michael Ironside, while he starts off by making his character a scenery chewer, he soon seems to realize he's over his head and plays the rest of his scenes with his trademark seriousness. The burden of the movie's attempts at humor falls on the shoulder of actor Bill Paxton as the hero. To his credit, Paxton does go all out with his performance, but his efforts are for naught mainly due to the writing of his character. In the beginning of the movie, we learn very little about his character. When it is revealed that he has a fiancÚ (who for some reason didn't join him in the task of looking for a home for the two of them), it comes as a complete surprise. Eventually, his character shapes up as being a somewhat nice guy, a fact that I think is a key mistake The Vagrant makes. Seeing this nice guy get terrorized and mentally abused scene after scene makes us in the audience feel sorry for him and not the least bit amused. I think that the movie would have been a lot funnier had it been established that the character of Graham Krakowski been shaped up early on to be a kind of bastard. Seeing a somewhat hateful person subject to all that abuse would probably be funny, because everyone loves to see a jerk get his comeuppance (and redemption at the end if the character eventually wises up.) But as the movie is, we in the audience just sit silently in our chairs and feel sorry for the guy, and that isn't funny at all. The core idea of The Vagrant is sound, but something went terribly wrong when that idea was expanded to feature length.

(Posted September 7, 2019)

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See also: The Baby, Completely Totally Utterly, Jack Frost