Graham buys a new house in a nice neighborhood. His only trouble is a homeless man that regularly hangs around across the street. Graham becomes obsessed with him, and is constantly afraid that he may attack him or break into his house. When Graham’s neighbor is found murdered, his paranoia escalates, and soon the boundary between reality and imagination begins to blur for him.
Chris Walas worked in the special effects department for several movies in the 1980s, including Gremlins and The Fly. He also directed two films, one was the sequel to The Fly, and the other one was the The Vagrant. The alleged danger posed by suspicious activities of the neighbors next door was staged brilliantly by Joe Dante in The Burbs, which came out three years earlier. The Vagrant picks this topic up again in his own way. Instead of creepy neighbors, the presumed threat is a vagabond that dwells on a piece of waste land across Graham’s house.
Putting a homeless person into the role of the villain may seem somewhat problematic, considering the social marginalization already experienced by homeless people. On the other hand, The Vagrant makes an effort to display the prejudice and general lack of empathy towards homeless people as exemplified by the movie’s main protagonist Graham. He is a neurotic character who slowly drifts into full psychosis as he picks a quarrel with the vagabond. In addition, Graham’s submission to the conventions of Corporate America and his inability to make informed decisions in his life round off the caricature of petty middle-class people.
The plot is a bit forced and there’s no real buildup of tension. Also, Graham’s drift into confusion and paranoia is not overly supported by the events taking place. The movie’s conclusion may leave viewers unsatisfied, as it’s not easy to tell if the ambiguity at the end it intended or just the result of an inconsistent script. The humor often is on the goofy and hysterical side, which may not be to everyone’s liking, but there were a few genuinely funny scenes, at least for me. The overall production values are modest, but nothing looks cheap, and a higher budget would also not have been necessary to tell this story.
The Vagrant would not be a movie worth remembering if it was not for Bill Paxton’s performance. His enthusiastic and tragicomic portrayal of Graham’s descent into madness is certainly the highlight of the movie. His hysteric conversations with the police that occur multiple times are one of the running gags. The specific reasons for why he breaks down so easily when dealing with the vagrant are only very sparsely elucidated, which actually makes it a bit difficult to feel for him. Despite this, he’s certainly the most fleshed out character of the movie, everyone else is relegated to playing goofy, superficial characters. That unfortunately also includes Michael Ironside who is not given a good opportunity to play a funny character for a change.
The Vagrant only works well enough because of Bill Paxton’s charming performance. It’s a rather unspectacular affair, but there’s enough laughs and scares in it to make it a moderately amusing horror comedy.