Principal Cast : Estella Warren, William Baldwin, Kim Bodnia, Sarah Butler, Jeffrey Peirce.
Synopsis: After a harrowing kidnap ordeal, an acclaimed actress goes to a secluded island with her psychiatrist husband. So when a woman shows up on their doorstep with blood on her hands, things begin to take a dark, twisted turn for the worse.
Psychological thrillers are a genre of film which is – apparently – hard to pull off well. For every Psycho, there’s a dozen What Lies Beneath’s. The Stranger Within sits comfortably at the lower end of quality film-making, both in terms of its genre and as a film in general. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, considering it “stars” William Baldwin, and Driven’s Estella Warren (possibly the most wooden actress to appear in modern mainstream film-making), but I expected this Stranger to be a little more thrilling, and a lot less ordinary. The conceit isn’t a bad one, not as far as an attempt to craft a mixture of unease and dread through Warren’s actress character’s emotional state, and the direction by Adam Neutzsky-Wulff is commendably brave to try and echo the likes of Hitchcock, but a flat script and pacing only marginally faster than a glacier leaves one to ponder what might have been were someone of actual ability let loose on this thing.
Famous actress Emily (Estella Warren) is kidnapped after the premier performance of her new theatrical show, and held hostage for five days by an unknown assailant. Her psychiatrist husband, Robert (Willaim Baldwin), whisks her away to an isolated Spanish villa to recuperate, where they can spend some time together. The night of their arrival, however, sees a distraught woman, Sarah (Sarah Butler) banging on their front door; she has been hiking with her boyfriend only to see him fall off a cliff and die, leaving her traumatized. Robert decides to try and help Sarah through her ordeal, while Emily is suspicious and annoyed at the unexpected (and unwanted) intrusion into their escape. The longer Sarah stays with them, however, the more paranoid Emily becomes, especially with the constant hallucinations and dreams she has about losing her unborn child, and the visions of dead bodies throughout the house and surrounds.
I can’t quite decide if The Stranger Within’s problems start at the script, or end with the direction. The screenplay isn’t terrible, at least not for a B-movie like this, but the acting performances and delivery by Warren and Baldwin are – and I’m being nice – horrendous. Warren has the magnetic screen persona of a snail, Baldwin much the same, and only Sarah Butler brings any life to proceedings when she arrives on the scene. The film flits between the undercurrents of a past tragedy, a recent tragedy, and an unfolding one – never with any grace, however. A subplot of a friend of Emily’s apparent suicide initially feels shoehorned into the story to bring extra emotional angst along with it, but Neutzsky-Wulff’s editing feels clunky and bewilderingly archaic. One gets the sense that Neutzsky-Wulff was aiming at a vaguely Psycho flavor, especially during the eerie opening credits (which, I might add, might also have been stolen from Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby, but the scratchy title fonts evoke Saul Bass’s Hitchcock work to the point where it could almost be plagiarism), but where Hitch was a master of eliciting great performances and exacting direction, Danish-born Neutzsky-Wulff doesn’t, or can’t.
The script, while I said wasn’t terrible for what it wanted to accomplish, feels awfully contrived, as if Neutzsky-Wulff (who wrote it) was trying to jam as many cinematic shorthand tricks into it as possible. The end result feels both lazy and underwhelming; hallucinations and zombiefied bodies appearing in Warren’s dreams and nightmares are designed to keep the audience off-balance (is this a dream, or is it real) but end up just becoming annoying, and quickly. Some of the dialogue feels forced, almost silly, which is only made worse by the Warren/Baldwin delivery style – much like a bad soap opera. There’s a sense of gaudy seediness too, especially with the opening kidnapping sequence (which feels too rushed, and too early in the film, throwing the audience for a loop), and although there’s some nudity sprinkled throughout to keep viewers attention on potential boobage, it just feels manufactured, rather than natural. You know: “here’s the obligatory sex scene”, and “here’s the obligatory moment when the crazy bitch takes off her clothes”, that kind of thing.
Honestly, I’d never normally have sat down to a film starring one of the Lesser Baldwins by choice, but the trailer was the thing that suckered me in. It painted this film as a tense, somewhat Basic Instinct-esque thriller (which, it isn’t), and so I think my expectations were raised a little too high considering the “talent” in front of the camera. Don’t be fooled – any dedicated thriller fan will find a lot of what occurs in The Stranger Within just annoyingly generic. It’s like a playbook was left open somewhere on how to make a thriller film and Neutzsky-Wulff just wrote verbatim from the pages. Just because you have the money to make a film with some stagey jump-cut, flash-bang edits and some creepy, Psycho-esque scoring, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some effort in. Admittedly the film look great; it was lensed by Michael Sauer Christensen, and has a lovely brownish tinge to the Spanish-set landscapes, almost dreamlike in quality. However, as much as the film look amazing, the contents of it are largely forgettable, if not entirely awful.
The Stranger Within aims high, with limited resources and some frankly terrible acting performances, ending up punishing viewers game enough to stick through it with some mediocre film-making. The “twist” at the end (you knew it was coming) is telegraphed almost from the outset, mainly because a film like this simply must have a twist in the tail by default, and the film already strikes a mark in every single genre trope box it can to get there. Estella Warren and William Baldwin are terribly serviced by a screenplay so contrived it makes Adam Sandler look like a comedic genius by comparison, and the film never seems to drag itself out of first gear. The Stranger Within is commendable in conceit, yet largely condemnable in execution. It’s a poorly acted, convoluted and cliched mess, so unless you want to find yourself trapped in a nightmare you’ll never forget, skip this one in favor of something else.
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