When it comes to psychological thrillers, everybody wants to be Hitchcock. Director Adam Neutzsky-Wulff, begs and pleads for this comparison to be made just in the opening credits of “The Stranger Within“. As each name shows up on the screen, it dissipates into lines that recall the opening of “Psycho“. Even the score sounds suspiciously reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s famous theme, with faced-paced violins pulsing away at your ears. Unfortunately, after Al, everybody else is just a pretender to the throne and while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it usually just makes the end result look 2nd rate. Not so in this case. Neutzsky-Wulff’s movie comes off as 3rd or 4th rate at best and manages to enter that rare pantheon of films known as “So bad, they’re good.” I’d say I managed to scratch my head maybe three times before my mind was completely blown.
Made on the cheap (the budget was approximately $800k), “The Stranger Within” mainly focuses on three main characters in one somewhat clausterphobic location. Emily Moore (Estella Warren) is the girl who has everything. Coming from a wealthy family, she’s never needed to work but has managed to etch out a very successful career for herself as a Hollywood actress. She’s married to Robert (William Baldwin), a very handsome psychiatrist who’s among the best in his field and an extremely devoted partner. While their marriage is strong, it’s tested after Emily is abducted, raped and left for days in a body bag. Naturally shaken up by the ordeal and permanently unsettled by the fact that the suspect is still on the loose, the Moores leave Los Angeles to relax on a remote Mediterranean island. However, on their first night a horrific car accident leaves a young man dead and his American girlfriend, Sarah, (Sarah Butler) in hysterics. As a doctor, Robert feels it’s his obligation to take in and treat the young girl. Emily, on the other hand, doesn’t feel right about it. As Robert and Sarah get closer, she begins to feel like the distressed beauty may be a threat to the marriage. What’s worse – Emily begins seeing the ghost of an old friend that committed suicide and she believes her life might be in danger.
And that’s the “normal” description… like if I told you “The Fly” was about a guy going through a couple of life changes.
Neutzsky-Wulff, who also wrote the script, includes plenty of plot twists and turns that make the movie fun, but are so bizarre from out of nowhere that you’ll find yourself laughing at it, more than white-knuckling through it. I won’t spoil anything (particularly the forehead slapping, Shyamalanian third act), but some things like Emily calling her friend Michael (Jeffrey Pierce) to come stay with the couple for a day, just never add up. He comes and goes as if he’s staying down the street, but he actually flew from LA to an isolated SPANISH ISLAND. Then he leaves just a few hours later? That’s SOME friend. I’m not sure the writer ever had it straight in his head as to if the Moores are on vacation or at home. Baldwin, Warren and the sexy-is-the-understatement-of-decade Butler are all talented actors with plenty of professional credits under their belts. But the bizarre and disjointed script proves to be a challenge for any of them to overcome. Even with the most realistic delivery, the cheesiness of the lines permeates the film’s already ridiculous narrative and turns this tense thriller into an unintentional comedy.
I do think this is in part due to Adam Neutzsky-Wulff’s being from Denmark. It seems like many of the finest “so bad, they’re good” films come from foreign directors that are trying to make mainstream “U.S.” movies with perhaps little understanding of how Americans actually speak or act. ”Troll 2” was helmed by Draco Floyd (real name: Claudio Fragasso) an Italian filmmaker who could/can barely speak English. Tommy Wiseau, a native Frenchman, speaks English very well, but that doesn’t make “The Room” any less of a delightful disaster. This is more likely the case with “The Stranger Within“… I would bet Neutzsky-Wulff speaks near fluent English, but is maybe missing something on the cultural side of things. Or perhaps, he’s just the right kind of incompetent to make something this weird and it wouldn’t have mattered where he comes from. I don’t know, nor do I care. All I can say for sure is that I’m going to invite a bunch of people over to watch this under the influence of copious amounts of booze.
The film is very well shot (it certainly doesn’t lack on the technical side of the coin), but it occasionally does look like it was made on high end video. The colors are a little too vivid with the image being a too clean for film, but the lighting keeps it looking extremely professional. It’s not bad at all, especially considering that ultra-low budget and it looks fantastic for a DVD. The 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is beautifully mixed with music filling the room through all channels and ambient noises giving the illusion of real space in such close quarters. If you feel the need, you can also watch the movie in French, Spanish, Portuguese or even Thai. Though I’m sure most US viewers won’t use any of these audio tracks, it’s still noteworthy that so many options were included on a non-Blu-Ray. Novel as it is, catering to linguaphiles must’ve used up all the space on the disc, because no extras are included… unless you want to count subtitles in 6 different languages or the ad-trailers for other movies.
“The Stranger Within” is both awful and an awful lot of fun. It’s exactly the reason CJD has a Hellicious scale and it wholeheartedly earns 3.5 out of 4 devils. The story is good enough to keep you interested, but executed poorly enough to make you lovingly remember that old soap opera “Passions”. Sure, Alfred Hitchcock is probably rolling in his grave, but there’s a pretty good chance he’s rolling with laughter.