The Vagrant is one of those movies that’s difficult to forget; its characters, dialogue and situations linger in your mind long after you’ve seen them. And, yet, somehow this bizarre and hilarious comic thriller was swiftly forgotten after its unceremonious release in the spring of 1992.
Produced by comedy legend and Elephant Man producer Mel Brooks and released by Hollywood titans MGM, The Vagrant tells the tale of bright-eyed office peon Graham Krakowski (pronounced crack- house-ski) as he finds an affordable home on the outskirts of an impoverished subdivision and is set upon by a hideous hobo (Marhsall Bell).
Graham is played by the late, great genre vet Bill Paxton in a role nearly as far out as his turn in John Hughes’ Weird Science. But it takes a lot of craziness for him to go full gonzo in this baby. What makes The Vagrant most rewarding for fans of Paxton’s versatile career is the rare snatches of humanity he brings to the role of Graham.
Like his later performance in the HBO series Big Love, Paxton manages to convey the moral complexity of a human being in all its permutations, good and bad. Instead of playing yet another wacky punk or over-the-top bully, Paxton portays Graham as a real guy thrust into a surreal situation.
Graham Krakowski is an ambitious social climber eager to please his implacable boss (the ever-slimy Stuart Pankin) and irascible girlfriend (Silk Stalkings‘ Mitzi Kapture), and we can feel the anxiety simmering within him from the film’s very first frames. Graham is a fidget and a powder keg.
The movie grabs you by the throat as soon as the opening titles begin to unspool, filling your head with the strangest music this side of Raising Arizona. Christopher Young’s score sounds like a phone sex creep breathing through a garbage disposal, rattling clam shells together, and fighting off an infestation of fleas.
Add to this some Psycho-worthy string accompaniment offset by accordion music and you’ve got an anxiety-inducing start that makes the opening office scene of Scorsese’s masterful After Hours look like a breezy day in the slack environment of a dot com headquarters.
What follows is a suburban nightmare as Graham finds himself taunted by the hideous hobo who invades his home while he sleeps (or does he?). The Vagrant deftly explores the social divide of the time in a playful way that owes as much to screwball comedy as it does to classic horror movies.
The Vagrant arrived in ’92 and flopped like Thornton Melton’s son on a three-story diving board. At the time of its release, audiences didn’t know what to make of bizarro dark comedies and arguably still don’t. For every Fargo or There’s Something About Mary, there are dozens of Clay Pigeons and Drowning Monas that just don’t connect.
The reason for The Vagrant‘s critical dismissal may seem difficult to comprehend, but a glance back at the biggest bombs of the early-1990s reveals something of a trend in audience predilections. If we go on the evidence, it would seem moviegoers of the time were suspicious of anything that hinted at social commentary and many were still hungover from the ersatz glam of the 1980s.
Titles like The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Braindead, AKA Dead-Alive, Cool World, Cry-Baby,
Hudson Hawk, The Hudsucker Proxy, Meet the Applegates, and Tank Girl were received with all the hospitality a farmer affords a poacher. While many of these films went on to find a cult following on home video and late-night cable, they came and went from movie theaters faster than a basehead chasing an errant crack rock.
Today, their subjective failure may be chocked up to a desire for total escapism on the part of moviegoers. They wanted to see Bruce Willis as a wise-cracking barefoot bad-ass blowing away bad guys, not suffer through two hours of Willis as a Crosby-crooning cat burglar attacking the affluent art world.
Audiences were hungry for tits, ass and explosions, not surrealist meditations on the state of the world. Their cynicism prevented them from reveling in warped takes on 50s nostalgia (Cry-Baby; The Hudsucker Proxy; Meet the Applegates) and they didn’t want to hear about the ravages of the planet by greedy humans (Tank Girl).
The biggest flicks of 1992 were sequels—Batman Returns, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Lethal Weapon 3—and sexual thrillers (Basic Instinct and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle). That tells you everything you need to know about the delicate and decadent appetites of early-nineties audiences.
Regardless, many of the most unique artists in the film industry had a lot on their mind. Screenwriter Richard Jefferies (Cold Creek Manor) was one of them. So, too, was Chris Walas, an Oscar-winning special makeup effects artist best remembered for his work on Gremlins and Scanners.
Together, these two awesome individuals gave keen viewers a demented take on home invasion unlike any other home invasion film before or since. Picking up where Alex Cox’s Repo Man left off, The Vagrant explores what happens when fringe thought invades our homes as well as our minds.
The movie and its satirical plot visually depict the class warfare, homeowner anxiety, and home security boom of the time. The craziest thing about it? These issues are as relevant today as they were when the The Vagrant first hit limited theaters.
Follow-home robberies and murder were on the rise in Los Angeles in 1992. A follow-home robbery in February ’92 resulted in the murder of a Granada Hills man. Police believed the killing was linked to a dozen other robberies in the same general area. 1992 saw nearly 2,590 killings in L.A. County, an eight percent rise from the year before.
An office vacancy rate of more than 20% allowed for homeless camps to proliferate across the city. According to a piece in the New York Times, one in three South-Central Los Angeles residents lived in poverty, while the national poverty rate continued to rise like the Evil Dead.
That’s because the problem prevails to this day. As of 2022, there were nearly 42,000 unhoused people on the streets of Los Angeles. Break-ins, smash-and-grabs, and other violent crimes have spiked substantially across California.
Over 10 million people now rely on Ring video doorbells and other home security equipment to protect them against potential home threats. Ring sold 1.4 million units in 2021 alone. The problems faced by the protagonist of The Vagrant are very real problems, but what makes The Vagrant worth watching is
the chaos that ensues at the first suggestion of something being amiss.
Graham (Paxton) falls over himself in his panic over the nasty vagrant who’s squatting across from the house he just bought, and the way he chooses to react is sidesplitting… because we know this kind of overreaction all too well; it’s been hard-wired into so many of us. It has also been the subject of the horror genre since Rod Serling’s infamous “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
The Vagrant remains an interesting watch today because it is as much a riff on the fear of the Other as is an existential horror-comedy about the fear of the Self. At the end of the day, do we really know who we are or what we are capable of? This and other questions are brilliantly posed by Jefferies’ solid script and lensed with a sleazy askew flair by first-time director Chris Walas.
The Vagrant may not have been welcome in people’s homes in 1992, but if you encounter it in the future, I recommend opening up and letting this bizarre bastard in.
Bob Freville is a writer and filmmaker from New York. His LoFi vampire film Hemo was released by Troma. His X-rated bikersploitation novella The Filthy Marauders is available from The Evil Cookie Publishing. He is the writer-producer of the forthcoming Norwegian drug comedy The Scavengers of Stavanger. Look inside his head: @bobfreville