Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{Blu-ray Review} The Animal Within: Sharing Space with The Vagrant (1992)

“A house like this can be the foundation for the rest of your life.”

Courtesy Arrow Video

Directed by Oscar-winning special effects guru Chris Walas and featuring an executive producer credit from none other than Mel Brooks, The Vagrant is one of those movies that most people have probably never even heard of, but that enjoys an outsized reputation among those who have.

This is primarily thanks to a bravura lead performance by fan favorite Bill Paxton, who rarely gets this much screen time in a feature. He’s also surrounded by other character actors, including Colleen Camp, Michael Ironside, and a truly fantastic performance from Marshall Bell as the eponymous vagrant. However, the film’s real stars are not its human actors.

Instead, the production design, especially of the house where most of the action takes place as it gradually goes from run down to cleaned up to run down far more, stands out, as do the many extremely gross special effects – perhaps no surprise, given Walas’ own filmography, which includes work on Gremlins and The Fly. However, the real MVP of the entire picture is probably Christopher Young’s weirdly organic score, which manages to toe a perfect line between cartoony and disturbing, capturing the film’s tone more completely than the rest of the movie ever could.

Despite its lazy tagline and key art (“He’s not home alone!”), The Vagrant shares no meaningful DNA with the picture that’s referencing. Instead, it is a spiritual sibling to The ‘Burbs, taking its tale of yuppie paranoia in both the same direction and different directions all at once. The Vagrant opens with Paxton’s Graham Krakowski buying (under some duress) a fixer-upper house across the street from a vacant lot.

On his first day there, he spots a vagrant who lives in the lot leaving his kitchen. Thus begins his descent into paranoia. I mentioned The ‘Burbs, but the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a ripe era for yuppie neuroses, especially around home ownership. From overt comedies such as The Money Pit to composites like this and The ‘Burbs to out-and-out horror films like Poltergeist – the idea that we (for values of “we” that generally included relatively well-off white suburbanites) were buying more than we bargained for when we bought a house was a fixture of cinema screens at the time.

Courtesy Arrow Video

And for most of its running time, The Vagrant is exactly that. Krakowski becomes more and more convinced of theories about this vagrant that seems, by turns, credible and outlandish, as the audience is tugged along. Is the vagrant actually messing with him, or is he just paranoid? Or is the vagrant messing with him now because Krakowski started out harassing the vagrant out of a misplaced sense that, because the man was homeless (and, yes, frankly, really gross looking), he was also a threat?

The film is at its best during these moments, when we are unsure of what is happening, and our protagonist’s fears steadily sabotage every aspect of his (perhaps, it might be suggested, already sabotaged) life. After a while, it becomes clear, even to him, that the vagrant has to be a projection of some deeper problem, and he worries that he has, in fact, been doing these things to himself when he’s asleep – maybe even going so far as committing murders.

At this point, the film switches gears away from the yuppie paranoia of the first act into a pitch-black comedy about untreated mental illness. It works less well here, but it still works, and Paxton’s performance is part of what helps ground it. Though he is put through the wringer here, he plays it much more restrained than usual for him, and the result is all the better for it.

It isn’t until the place where most movies would probably have ended – when Krakowski has been apprehended for his crimes and gone to court – that this film kicks into its bizarro third act. Ultimately acquitted thanks to a tragic coincidence, Krakowski flees his old life and retreats to a tiny trailer park in the middle of nowhere, where he befriends a blind man named X-Ray and shacks up with an amorous neighbor. Still convinced that he is his own worst enemy, he handcuffs himself to the bed every night so that he can’t get up to any mischief.

Courtesy Arrow Video

Things keep happening anyway, though. Because it turns out that the vagrant is real and has been following him. Indeed, the vagrant is a disgraced former professor who is using Krakowski to prove his twisted theories about human behavior. He suggests that Krakowski is only truly human now that he has had everything stripped from him, and it does seem true enough that our protagonist is much happier in the trailer park than he ever was in his more “successful” life.

That still doesn’t mean he’s pleased to have a murderous weirdo following him around, though, and the two end up in a knock-down, drag-out inside a roadside spook house attraction, which is an absolute delight. Sure, literally nothing that happens from the end of Krakowski’s trial until the credits roll makes a lick of sense, but by then you’re probably either along for the ride or you’re not, and at least it sticks to the live-action cartoon tone that the film has built from its earliest moments.

Is The Vagrant an overlooked classic? Nah. Its themes are too all over the place for that and it isn’t really very interested in exploring them anyway, opting instead for broad caricature and gross-out effects whenever it can. But it’s restrained enough to keep you going, and delivers a satisfying concoction of satire, horror, and comedy that looks and sounds nice and sharp on a solid new Blu-ray from Arrow Video, where you can really appreciate all those gnarly effects, set designs, and that amazing score.