Fango Flashback: “THE VAGRANT” (1992)Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
When people think about Mel Brooks and the horror genre, they usually go to one of two things: Brooks’ spoofs of horror (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, HIGH ANXIETY and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT) or his Brooksfilms genre productions, which brought the likes of David Lynch and David Cronenberg to mainstream audiences for the first time. But while those films are the most prolific of his horror-related productions, the one Brooksfilm production that most represented Mel Brooks’ sensibilities for comedy and horror has been unfortunately overlooked for over two decades now: Chris Walas’ horror-comedy THE VAGRANT.
On paper, THE VAGRANT sounds like a horror home run: produced by Brooks and directed by SFX mastermind Walas, both of whom were hot off the successful sequel to THE FLY, the film was written by SCARECROWS writer Richard Jefferies and starred the likes of genre favorites such as Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside, Colleen Camp and Marshall Bell. And the plot offered the perfect mix of horror and comedy, as the film followed an anxious businessman whose life is torn down by a murderous homeless man, and then finds himself at the center of even more terrifying master plan. But for whatever reason, THE VAGRANT landed in 1992 to almost no fanfare, critically or commercially, and laid mostly forgotten until appearing on a 2013 4-film DVD from Scream Factory.
But for all that its worth, THE VAGRANT is actually an excellent horror comedy, especially for those who appreciate Brooks’ more irreverent, crude and over-the-top work. The script is filled with surprisingly dark punchlines, including the amount of places in his home that Paxton’s character finds body parts, and Walas also sufficiently handles the horror moments with ease as well. And furthermore, THE VAGRANT also allows most of its cast to play against type: Paxton revels in playing a perpetually-shaken and seriously unlucky dork, Ironside seems to be having a blast as a bull-headed and foolish cop, and Bell brings the titular character to life with a performance as wholly disgusting as his mountain of make-up.
Perhaps the reason THE VAGRANT has been a black sheep among the horror genre is that the film is a horror comedy that’s way more comedy than horror, much like GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH or PARENTS. While the ’90s were a particularly strange time in horror history, especially as studios looked for a trend to replace the dying slasher movement, THE VAGRANT was still very much a film of ’80s influence, as its extremely colorful, its humor is wacky, and its plot is definitely centered around domestic horror. But that is in no way a detriment to the film itself, as it holds up surprisingly well after all these years, and to see Paxton’s character descend further into a literal and figurative hell-hole is a shockingly hilarious time.
THE VAGRANT also has the distinction of being a studio film with an extremely anti-studio narrative, as its scale is huge and its story is shockingly bleak at times, although intentionally so in the hopes of mining humor from the situation. For instance, the homeless villain does go to some pretty extreme lengths to terrorize Paxton, including killing animals, women and cops, some of whom make up the most likable characters of the film. The film also takes some really bizarre turns throughout, including Paxton’s willingness to become a trailer park sex slave out of fear of being alone, but in a strange way, they all feel somewhat necessary and logical in the big picture of THE VAGRANT. But as the film is a Brooksfilm production, Walas goes at the material with extravagant gusto, which allots the film some serious production value and an immersive atmosphere.
Overall, THE VAGRANT is a fun, weird and shocking Brooksfilm feature that offers both humor and horror on a dirt-filled platter. But as unique and imaginative as THE VAGRANT is, it’s also a film that earns its charm from the sheer amount of work put into it, as the cast and crew were committed 110% to some absolutely crazy material. Yet THE VAGRANT certainly the kind of horror comedy they don’t make anymore, and Walas shows a side to himself as a filmmaker that otherwise would have never been seen. It’s still not the easiest film to find, but if you like your horror with a dose of surreal hilarity, THE VAGRANT will be worth the hunt.