The Movie Archive

When Strangers Appear

Movie Poster of When Strangers Appear

Directed by: Scott Reynolds
Screenwriter(s): Scott Reynolds
Starring: Radha Mitchell, Josh Lucas, Barry Watson, Kevin Anderson, Steven Ray
Genre: Thriller
Country: NZ / USA
Year released: 2001
Running time: 1h 38m
Rating: 7 out of 10

When Strangers Appear suffers from having a very bad title. Immediately, you conjure images of Crime Night on the Discovery Channel and some form of forensic examination of crime scenes. In fact, it’s a tense psychological thriller set in Oregon, but filmed in New Zealand on a miniscule ($3million) budget. And it was almost called Shearer’s Breakfast, which is a candidate for Worst Title Ever.

Beth (Mitchell, Phone Booth and Pitch Black) owns and runs both the local diner and motel in a small town which has been bypassed by the interstate. As a result, she often has a lot of time on her hands between customers. So, when Jack (Watson) wanders in, tired and hungry, she’s willing to be accommodating and give him a full breakfast, even though he only has a buck and change on him.

Soon, it’s virtual rush hour at the diner, as three more customers pull into the car park, led by the charming Peter (Lucas). Although they claim to be surfers looking for the beach, it’s clear that they have some sort of connection to Jack. But, who should Beth trust? Jack, who says they’re after him? Or Peter, who seems to be a knight in shining armour?

Writer/director Scott Reynolds is a bit of a cult favourite, having helmed two other NZ horror-thrillers: Heaven and The Ugly. Here, he’s crafted a clever thriller in which we are kept from the truth behind the four strangers’ appearances until well into the film. It’s heartening that a writer can still credit his audience with some intelligence and not give away the ending in the first reel by dropping too many hints. With each new development or additional piece of information, your perception of the motives and character of the three leads shifts perceptibly and the tension builds appreciably.

Both Radha Mitchell and Barry Watson hold their own as the two more sympathetic leads, but it’s Lucas whom you’ll remember long after the movie ends. His is a charismatic performance which keeps you guessing throughout. Even his smallest comment is fuelled with both charm and menace.

The only real complaint you can level against the movie is that there are too many unanswered questions. There’s a sub-plot surrounding Beth and the local sheriff (Anderson, Sleeping with the Enemy), whom she alleges assaulted and raped her. This seems to have been built in purely to make it difficult for Beth to go him as soon as everything goes pear-shaped, as there’s no exploration of this event or its consequences, or even of small town morals.

Also raised but not explained: Is the sheriff abusing his wife and should we care? Where did the doctor’s body go? Why does a diner which the owner admits is lucky to see a lunch rush of three customers have such a large cash float? And what is the thing that everyone is willing to kill for?

Given that the whole film cost less than the wrap party of your average Hollywood shoot, When Strangers Appear gives you serious bang for your buck. And, unlike most brain candy served up by major studios, at least it will have you thinking after the movie has ended.