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A Stranger in the Woods (2024) Review

A Stranger in the Woods opens with film student Edith (Laura Ellen Wilson, Coven of Evil, Bloody Nun 2: The Curse) talking to her camera as she drives through what looks like the middle of nowhere. She’s on her way to do her senior project, a video about a person who has lived an interesting life. Her classmates are all profiling “hippies and bums” and she’s too good for that.

Her professor (Shawn Michael Clankie, Cicada!, A Guidebook to Killing Your Ex) has arranged for her to interview Victor Browning (Bill Oberst Jr., Everybody Dies by the End, 3 From Hell), who has lived in seclusion for the past two decades. Once she arrives, she finds him to be a bit of a character, pretending to be somebody else, not revealing the truth until she’s about to leave in frustration.

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That sets the tone for much of what is to come as director József Gallai (Aftermath, Moth) who also wrote the script from an idea by Beáta Boldog, has the young student interviewing the seemingly charming, if slightly eccentric, Victor only for some troubling details to surface. Not the least of which is his obsession with the idea that a stranger in the woods is observing everything he does. One that Edith begins to share.

As with most of Gallai’s films, A Stranger in the Woods has a very small cast, primarily just the two leads. Other characters such as Edith’s professor and her grandmother (Lynn Lowry, Spirit Riser, Splatter Disco) interact with them by way of phone and/or video calls, helping to maintain the sense of isolation. That isolation begins to become important after Victor, unhappy with the meal Edith cooks, flies into a rage, smashing his plate and storming off. What else might he be capable of, and is she safe in a remote house with him?

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And the sense of isolation and latent danger is what drives much of A Stranger in the Woods. Gallai’s films tend to be slow burns, but this feels more like a dark drama or psychological thriller at times, with nothing overtly horrific happening until nearly fifty minutes in when Edith finds her host wandering around in the dark covered in blood. That sets up a more eventual second half, but even that is somewhat restrained.

That’s not to say that it’s boring, it isn’t. It just feels as though it was intended to be a character study as much as it was a horror film. There’s little in the way of gore or actual scares, even after the plot gets moving. The lack of scares is due in part to it being very easy to guess Victor’s secret long before it’s revealed. That, combined with the film’s found footage format, give a strong hint of how things will play out.

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But I suspect Gallai wasn’t really out to scare the viewer this time as much as he was trying to make a mood piece about an unusual character, or considering the secret in Edith’s past, possibly two of them. And it works quite well, in no small part due to a pair of solid performances from the leads. I expected that from Oberst, but Wilson, who I hadn’t seen that much of prior to A Stranger in the Woods, was a pleasant surprise.

If you’re looking for a story driven and atmospheric film, and don’t mind trading jump scares for an unsettling feeling in the back of your mind, A Stranger in the Woods will be just what you’re looking for.

BayView Entertainment will release A Stranger in the Woods on May 4th.

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