★★★ Directed by Cam Clark
Starring Joe Leatherman, Mark S. Esch, Matthew Finney & Rachel Lopfenstein
Indie Film Review by Seamus Conlon
It’s often said that to understand the subtext of a horror film, you simply have to remove the phantasmagorical or sensational component of the film and then you will notice human drama for which the monsters(s) is simply a metaphor. Hence in Hitchcock’s The Birds the apocalyptic animal onslaught ceases once Tippi Hendren has resolved tensions with the mother of her love-interest, and in Dawn of the Dead the besiegement of characters in a shopping mall makes it clear that the terrorising zombies are a metaphor for consumerism. In The Stray, however, one character reminisces at dinner for the times when survival wasn’t the singular thought exerting a totalitarian grip over the psyche of every human left on the planet. Clearly this is not a film about ordinary human life where the extraordinary factor of a zombie apocalypse is a symbol of some psychological or social malaise. This is a world where monsters exist autonomously of human imagination, and ultimately threaten the ability of human beings to continue imagining.
The Stray takes place in the winter of 1966/7 in a counterfactual America where the Cold War heated up to nuclear war, and consequently American society has been reduced to a Darwinian free-for-all of isolated militarised tribes. For reasons that the film opts not to explicate, the nuclear catastrophe mutated part of the population into zombies, who can successfully mutate otherwise regular Homo sapiens into zombies with a bite. The central protagonist is a (former) marine named Tracy Arnold, played by Joe Leatherman, who begins the film wandering alone through the wintertime countryside, reflecting through flashback upon how the military unit he was once a member of was decimated by its fight against zombies during the early days of the apocalypse. As Tracy becomes uncomfortably entangled in the lives of a family whose territory he stumbles into, the film frequently crosscuts between his current experiences in trying to assimilate a tribe for survivalist reasons, and his memories of the decay of his military unit.
Initially the world of The Stray looks surprisingly thriving and healthy. Tracy’s flashbacks to the earlier days of the apocalypse takes place in a blossoming summer, and when the spring of ’67 comes around, nuclear winter seems not to have taken its toll on the environment. This seems silly at first, and can’t be explained away as the result of budgetary restrictions on the ability of independent filmmakers to alter the environment (they could’ve shot post-apocalyptic ‘summer’ in winter). But in the film’s final act distorting cinematographic effects are apparently introduced to drench the action and scenery in an unnatural hazy amber. The result is a pleasing counterpoint between different colour palettes used for different sections of the film; blossoming multicolour for the flashbacks, an all-enveloping white for the bleak winter, and an unsettling, all-pervading autumnal tone for the final fallout. Ryan Woebbeking is one of the strongest components of the film, punctuating handheld camerawork that follows the action with static, painterly shots.
The Stray lacks and overarching sense of direction, and while it certainly has a climax the film doesn’t really build its way towards a catharsis. Technical stops-and-starts such as cuts to black or cessations in the film’s score prevent it from developing the momentum necessary for the audience to feel that the film has moved somewhere. But at the heart of the film Joe Leatherman’s performance provides a strong unifying thread. Variously expressive yet never slipping into overstatement, Leatherman’s performance is perhaps the strongest piece of storytelling in The Stray.