WELCOME THE STRANGER joins a growing subgenre of films where waifish women mope around houses while paranormal stuff happens in the background. It’s in debatably good company, since lots of people seemed to like Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story (despite the presence of Casey Affleck). But will they feel the same way about Abbey Lee as she explores a creepy mansion while piano keys clink eerily and the deep bass of a string quartet evinces a palpable sense of dread? Let’s find out.
As the film opens, director Justin Kelly is reluctant to throw us a plot bone, stretching out the dialogue-free introduction interminably. Alice (Abbey Lee) drives her car slowly up the long, long driveway to her brother Ethan’s (Caleb Landry Jones) mansion. We gradually watch her exit the car and leisurely take in the surroundings, making her way to the pool and inexplicably deciding to go for a skinny dip. Ethan watches on lethargically from a window before greeting her. Languidly.
We find out Ethan is a writer and artist, working on a project he refuses to reveal the details of. He won’t tell Alice how he can afford the upkeep on the mansion, and is generally mysterious, broody and quiet. Something happened between them when they were children, creating an awkward dynamic between the two that we’re not to understand until later in the story. Maybe.
Slow burn and ambiguities are the order of the day in WELCOME THE STRANGER, and it’s hard not to suspect part-way through that the director is concocting abstruseness and conundrum that he has no intention of satisfying with an acceptable conclusion. The film pretends to know where it’s going, but it literally leads us down the garden path when Alice starts having weird dreams and sleepwalking, seeing strange lights in the backyard, and what appears to be a tractor beam abducting a naked woman who randomly shows up in the house in the middle of the night.
I’m not saying it’s aliens… but… well…
Things get weirder when Alice starts talking to dirt in the backyard, and subsequently urinating in it. We’re dealt a lot of obscure, mumbled conversations that leave us wondering why the film wants the audience to listen to them. There’s also an uncomfortable incestuous tension, which is exacerbated when Ethan’s girlfriend shows up unexpectedly and jealousy sets in.
Abbey Lee – an Australian born model – is obviously cast here because of her previous role in the similarly inscrutable art horror film, The Neon Demon. Her co-star Caleb Landry Jones seems to be building a career for himself playing creepy, unsettling dudes, and it’s odd to see him in a smaller project like this after appearing in Oscar favorites Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and The Florida Project. That fella’s goin’ places – but not because of WELCOME THE STRANGER, sadly.
The real star of the show here is the beautiful home that serves as its setting. I wonder who it belongs to? Someone’s parents? Did they also put up money for the movie, or did someone have to dip into their trust fund? That’s just my speculation. I’m a poor journalist. I should do some research on such things… but it’s more fun to speculate. Anyway, the house is a stunning setting! If only more events of substance could have happened there.
This is a quiet, arty “horror” piece that wants to build mood and atmosphere (or waste your time depending on your point of view) rather than straight up horrify. In fact, not much “horror” happens at all. It’s a nice looking film, though. It’s even shot on actual honest to goodness film, and the cinematography is A-OK. I didn’t have much fun, though.
WELCOME THE STRANGER arrives on Digital March 20th