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THE STRAY Leaves No Zombie Behind (Movie Review)

StrayTHE STRAY, the debut feature from director Cam Clark and the 2nd feature from Open Sign Productions, is a Post-Apocalyptic tale of survival set in an alternate version of 1966 where nuclear war has destroyed civilization and has transformed the world into a mutant infested wasteland. Starring Joe Leatherman, the story follows Tracy Arnold who struggles to survive all the while being forced to face his tortured past and the stray that refuses to let him forget.  Open Sign Productions is following up their successful feature film Phantom of the Woods (Winner of the ‘Best Director’ award at the 2014 Indie Horror Film Festival) with another jaunt into the horror genre which they are seemingly so eager to conquer.  You can order the DVD or stream the film by clicking HERE.

Like Inglorious Basterds (And others of its ilk), director Cam Clark’s The Stray decides to rewrite our history into a bit more of a fun genre playground.  The film plays with the notion of something like the Cuban-Missile Crisis or another nuclear scare of the 1950s and 1960s actually came to fruition and laid America dead in its wake.  And of course with the nuclear fallout, we’re either left with one of two things; giant radiation birthed bug-monsters or the living dead.  One of the fun aspects of tacking the revisionist history genre is that once you’ve changed things, anything goes, and historical accuracy no longer needs to be adhered to.

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The Stray doesn’t harp on that.  Its setting is merely a backdrop for the story and gives the writers and director an out to avoid having to over complicate the story with technological advancements of the modern day.  Its a smart angle that helps keep the nit picky viewer at bay.  Instead, the focus of the story is on character relations; the story of a man collapsing two family units due to his refusal to leave his own biological ties behind.  Like zombie films that “get it”, The Stray isn’t about the flesh eaters, its about the people who are keeping away from them and the conflicts within their own survival units.  As told in present and flashback, the film really builds upon its own depth, understanding and mythology in just the amount of time for one feature length film.

Now, this is still a zombie film and so some munching and crunching on a human from time to time is quite the requirement.  What I appreciate about The Stray is that it either has a full realization of its budgetary or talent limitations or its opted to go for a more suspenseful route in terms of violence.  The film isn’t afraid to show some blood or ripping of skin when need be, but it doesn’t harp on it, showing some restraint.  I love a blood soaked gorefest as much as anyone, but with the way some of this is shot and cut, it becomes effective in either giving us just enough or making your mental image much more disturbing than what they could have been showing you.  Some gun violence also benefits from some good cutaways that’ll make you twist in your seat with anticipation of the connection.

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Keep in mind that The Stray is a super independent production.  Where that needs to come into play is the film’s performances.  They range a bit all over the map (And I’m not going to harp on the subpar, we’ve all seen or worked on films of this nature and understand its limitations. Picking on those just trying to help or doing their best would be petty and pointless), but luckily casting gave bigger roles and meatier parts to the more talented performers.  Some of them may be undone by some heavy ADR during some exterior scenes.  However, there are bright spots here.  When Mark S Esch and Matthew Finney enter the film, it really raises the bar in terms of engagement for the film.  The two play a pair of brothers that are at ends about our protagonist Tracy entering their family unit.  Finney is able to channel some anger without taking it over the top, bringing a sense of a both a wild card and dread.  Esch manages to feel like the old vet among the cast, classing up the film and making everyone he shares a scene with better just by being in it with him.  One of the strongest performances in the film is unfortunately hampered by some ADR.  Ryan Woebbeking playing “Hick” (Who also serves as the film’s DP) has the most committed and natural performance in the film.  His look, body language and facial expressions are of the best in the film but its offset by how the dialogue comes across.  My suspicions were correct in a later scene where it looks as if the live audio is used and its the most complete moment by any actor in the film.  A shame, but I think his live performance is strong enough that you can see through the ADR and recognize an awesome highlight of acting in the film.

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I’m going to stick on Woebbeking here, as I mentioned he’s also the director of photography on the film.  He may just be the unsung hero of The Stray.  What keeps this film from falling among the hordes of independent zombie films like it is that its always really interesting to look at.  Between some beautiful framing in establishing shots and thought out handheld work, Woebbeking has a real grasp on his craft.  He also plays with the lighting, tone and feel of both the present day and flashback sequences to give a real sense of each.  Its as if they are coming from different times, places and movies.  It works to the full advantage.  His sense of knowing how to effective use the handheld is a breath of fresh air as most people in the same position as him in no-budget cinema just shake the camera to shake it and have no real sense of why they are doing or how to make it effective.  There are many moments in the film that just look pretty as well, like they’d be a nice photo or painting on one’s wall.

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Open Sign Productions’ The Stray is a nice, somewhat different twist on the zombie genre that has been pulled pretty thin in the last decade.  What keeps this one fresh is the interesting historical background setting, good photography and its insistence to focus on characters and suspense in the trust between them instead of bloodshed.  Is the film groundbreaking, amazing or going to blow your mind?  No, but those behind it aren’t likely to expect you to find it that either.  Its just a bit of genre escapist entertainment.  Where it impresses is in what they were able to do with how little they were likely given.  In tradition of something like The Battery, budget cannot limit a solid story shining through.

Stray poster

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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