Directed by Peter Sullivan
This review contains spoilers that are in the trailer
Netflix films are a very mixed bag, with arty movies like Roma, or exemplary thrillers like Gerald’s Game and The Perfection, being balanced out by cheap, disposable dross. I guess it’s the company’s model of making something for everyone: so fans of Criterion and Lifetime alike can feel equally at home browsing the ever-expanding Originals collection. The latest entry, Secret Obsession, caters far more for the latter, with the streaming giants sparing lots of expense by hiring Lifetime and Hallmark veteran Peter Sullivan. Writing with Kraig Wenman, also known for made for TV movies, he gives us this by the numbers thriller that’s akin to watching fast-food. Fun for a bit, though you’ll likely regret it afterwards.
We’re straight into the action, so enjoy it while it lasts. Jennifer (Song) flees an unseen assailant during a rainy night in an American city. Of course, because we don’t get a straight look at him then we know her pursuer’s identity will be important. Anyway, in getting away she’s hit by a car and ends up hospitalised, and with amnesia. Lucky she’s got her devoted “husband” Russell (Vogel) there to help out and take her “home” to a great big house far from any of her friends or a phone signal. Then things slow down. A lot. It all seems fine at first, even if Russell is the sort of creep who wears a shirt and tie to dinner in his own house. But as anyone who’s seen the trailer, or any other thriller for that matter, will know, he isn’t really her husband. Instead, he’s a murderous, obsessive psychopath who wants the barely mobile Jennifer for himself.
I assume Netflix gave away the twist because if they didn’t then Secret Obsession would be accused of ripping off numerous other films (some which are way more high profile). But, to be fair, even if they hadn’t it’s fairly obvious since the reveal is aggressively signposted as soon as Jennifer asks about her parents. Much of Russell’s dialogue is overly suspicious, and the family photos are comically bad Photoshop jobs, making it a mystery of Scooby-Doo proportions. Which actually gives the film some charm. Secret Obsession will probably appeal most to people who read second-tier domestic thrillers, with names like The Innocent Wife, The Woman in the Window or The Couple Next Door. There’s gleeful ridiculousness to the whole thing. From a self-explanatory name to the high concept pitch, and the ease in which Russell works his ruse, it’s a film which takes itself seriously because the audience won’t. Speaking of its audience, this film won’t struggle to find one. Not because Netflix users are stupid, or because they don’t appreciate good cinema etc. But because, as per the slasher film formula, sometimes the sheer predictability can be charming. You’ll know if you like it from the story because you know what you’re going to get from it: far-fetched drama, a woman held captive and an unreliable narrator.
Even as a flimsy but fun thriller, it’s lacking. There’s scandal and exaggeration aplenty. However, it’s also unusually boring. For instance, we wait two-thirds of the film for Jennifer to find out the truth despite it being part of the advertising and so in her face. When she does, it finally picks up the pace though still fails to reward viewers for their patience. The third act is really repetitive and reminds us how easy it is, in the hands of a bad writer, for a character with no memory to become a blank slate. Brenda Song does lots of face acting, though has extremely little to work with and next to no time to develop her character. Probably the only reason I was invested in her was that Russell is even worse. Vogel isn’t a bad performer per se and manages to play the horror scenes well enough, with a reasonably convincing intensity meaning you can sort of see why she’d fear him. Yet I can’t see why audiences would be interested in him since he’s defined by the usual tired tropes of toxic masculinity and entitlement that make the default modern stalker-type. Simply put, he’s not memorable or special enough to function as a threat. There’s also a lot of time wasted with a subplot. Dennis Haysbert seems there for the paycheque, playing a fairly derivative movie detective, with the obligatory tortured backing story about the time he couldn’t save someone. As such, you can bet he gets invested in this case. However, there’s something quite unsatisfying about watching him catch up with the audience. Were Russell more deep, or there was at least one other suspect hinted at, his inclusion could have been ok. But as it stands, it means we get a by the number’s procedural plot that minus a reveal.
This is the sort of film I’m uncomfortable giving a rating, seeing as how part of its appeal will be people finding it so bad it’s good. Maybe it’ll go down well with some popcorn and a fizzy drink. Yet I don’t think it’s enjoyable enough to be the guilty pleasure it presumably aspires towards being. Despite its unapologetically ridiculous premise the fun wore off pretty quickly as the story draged in a way that made Swimfan look like Fatal Attraction. It left me wanting something either far more substantial or far more silly.
Secret Obsession is on Netflix now.