Since the beginning of storytelling, the ‘mysterious stranger’ has been one of the most common thematic catalyst, with storytelling using the character to show a change in others. The plots of stories focused on the arrival of strangers hinge on the effect that their presence has on those they visit, often bringing out traits that people had repressed or tried to forget.
There are many different ways in which storytellers choose to integrate the stranger into their story. One of the most common uses, especially in old stories, is to make the stranger deceptive and malicious, such as in old fairy tales. Many horror movies today also use the stranger as a central plot device.
Another purpose of the stranger that some authors use is to make those affected reflect on their lives, both internally and situationally. There are many more possible uses for the ‘stranger’ character in fiction, many of which are featured on this list and endless number of more stories that are waiting to be told. Another important choice that the storyteller, or director in this case, has to make is whether to focus the point of view on the stranger or on those that are visited.
On this list there is a good mix of both of these types of films, showing the impact that this choice can make on the tone of the film. From a variety of different countries, eras and genres, the films on the following list show some of the greatest ways that the ‘mysterious stranger’ plot device has been implemented in film.
10. Visitor Q (Takashi Miike, 2001)
An extremely disturbing addition to the ‘mysterious stranger’ genre, Takashi Miike’s low budget black comedy is as controversial as they come. The film shows a non-traditional narrative of a demented family who is visited by a mysterious man named Visitor Q.
After the presence of the visitor, their lives are made even more disturbed and the film descends into complete, surreal madness. Be warned, some of the content is quite graphic, even for a Miike film, with some of the themes including murder, incest and necrophilia. Although the film plays this stuff of as bizarre comedy instead of as intense and dark.
Visitor Q was made as a part of the “Love Cinema” series: a joint collaboration by independent filmmakers to explore the merits of low-cost digital media. Because of this, Miike extensively uses low level lighting and handheld footage, giving the impression of a documentary. This effect gives an alarming sense of realism to an otherwise outrageous film.
The stranger in this film is a very ambiguous character, whose relationship with the family members in unclear and whose personality is not explored. Although the controversial nature of the film will polarize viewers, if you can get over the content it is a very interesting watch.
9. Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
This tense crime thriller from director Michael Mann stars Jamie Foxx as Max Durocher, an ambitious taxi driver in Los Angeles. The night starts out normal for him until he picks up Vincent, a mysterious man played by Tom Cruise, who offers Max a lot of money to be his driver for the night. Max accepts but after the first stop that Vincent requests, he learns first hand that Max is a contract killer and that he will be aiding a murderer for the entire night.
The situation only gets more complex for Max,as he soon had bodies to deal with, as well as police who are starting to string the murders together. In the end, the film boils down to a thrilling stand off between Vincent and Max, who is trying to put an end to the bloodbath.
This crisp, understated thriller was a refreshing breath for the genre in Hollywood, as well as for the two stars of the film who both put forward critically acclaimed performances. The main thematic turmoil of the film is focused on Max’s character who quickly is taken out of his comfort zone, into the criminal life by the stranger riding in his backseat. He has to decide he should risk his life and stand up to the killer or live with the fact that he aided in the murders.
Throughout the film, Mann shows us how Vincent tries to manipulate Max as well as Max’s internal struggles, which is much more intriguing than the non-stop action that typically fills these types of movies. Due to the expectation defying performances and calmer approach to the genre, Collateral made its mark as one of the smartest Hollywood thrillers in recent memory.
8. Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)
Very similar in plot to Miike’s Visitor Q, although with much less disturbing content, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s minimalist masterpiece still holds it power and artistic significance today. A man known only as “The Visitor”, played by Terrence Stamp, appears at the house of a wealthy family in Milan. He soon engages in sexual affairs with the entire population of the household:
The mother, father, daughter, son and maid. Each affair and character has a different symbolic meaning. The mother is sexually repressed, the maid is extremely religious, the daughter seeks the attention of a man, the son needs confidence and the father is overly stressed. The Stranger’s presence shows each of the characters what they are missing in life and when he inevitably leaves they struggle to cope without his comfort.
Teorema is a major step in a new direction for Pasolini. His early films were very much under the influence of the Italian Neo-realist movement. He was known for being very experimental in this way, often using non-professional actors, small budgets and simple stories. This film, however, employs many great actors and very professional, stylized cinematics.
The film is also very notable for its extreme lack of dialogue, with only a handful of words being spoken throughout. Whether a fan of European art-house cinema or simply would like to see an intriguing character study, Teorema is a terrific classic not to miss.
7. Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
One of the classic Westerns of American cinema based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, is one of the few uplifting films on this list. Shane, the ‘mysterious stranger’ of this story, is played brilliantly by Alan Ladd. The story follows Shane, a gunfighter in the West who wanders into a small town in Wyoming.
In this town there lives a family called the Starretts, a father, mother and son who are claiming land from the Homestead Act. Unfortunately, in the same town there is a powerful cattle baron, Rufus Ryker, who wants to take the land. Starret hires Shane to help on his land and as defense against Ryker’s men.
Unlike most movies on this list, the ‘mysterious stranger’ has a largely beneficial effect on those he visits. It is not as simple as the main story suggests, however, and there is a lot of internal conflict between Starrett and Shane. His almost perfect sense of principles and loyalty make Starrett look bad in the eyes of his family.
Starrett’s wife Marian develops a taboo crush on Shane despite her husband and his son Joey looks up to Shane as a father figure. The typical Western story with innovative character motifs was one of the most influential cowboy stories of all time and help define the genre.
6. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
An underrated gem in Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary filmography, Shadow of a Doubt is one of the most unsettling and thrilling films of its time. Partially written by the great Thornton Wilder, the film stars Joseph Cotten, in a rare sinister role, as Uncle Charlie who comes to visit his sister’s family in San Francisco after not visiting for over decade.
The most excited for his visit is his neice Charley, who is named after him. His presence starts very positive but soon suspicions arise. For instance, Uncle Charlie refuses to be photographed and detectives approach Charley. The suspicions appear to be true but unfortunately Charley is the only one who knows, and Uncle Charlie will do whatever he can to silence her.
Joseph Cotten’s performance is the highlight of the film, switching between the fun, charismatic uncle role and the vicious murderer at the drop of a hat. The winding plot is also quite interesting, reaching into darker places than most and the tension is built up just as well as in Hitchcock’s more famous thrillers. Although for some reason its reputation has not kept in the public eye, it is highly regarded by all who watch it and it is reportedly Hitchcock’s favorite of all those he made.