I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Making a film is an almost impossible venture. It requires enormous dedication from everyone involved, both in front of and behind the camera. And for low/no-budget features, it requires the organization of dozens of people over what can be months of filming in extremely uncomfortable environments. Because of this, many first-time horror filmmakers tend to overcompensate for the inevitable shortcomings by opting for excessive or cartoonish gore or by going for laughs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s refreshing to see someone try to make something serious while still dipping into the realm of horror. Cam Clark is the vice-president of Open Sign Productions, and is the writer/director of their second feature film, The Stray; a zombie-survival film that has plenty to offer, despite never quite living up to its high-concept. The film is set in an alternate 1966, where Kennedy didn’t halt the Cuban Missile Crisis. This led to nuclear war, unending nuclear winter, and zombie hordes, but honestly, none of this really plays a factor in the storytelling. The Stray could be set any time and almost any place, although Clark and cinematographer Ryan Woebbeking make excellent use of a cold and empty Fort Wayne, Indiana with stretches of time where the story is told almost entirely through the visuals, becoming quite reminiscent of The Road (2009) in the best of ways. These really were the best parts of the film and were where Clark showed his real strengths as a director. The storytelling is lean and economical, with the visuals giving you all the information you need to see what’s going on psychologically with our main character. Joe Leatherman plays our lead, Tracey Arnold, a marine wandering the desolate Midwest, haunted by memories of the past and, more intriguingly, by the physical reminder of his failings in the form of his zombified brother Jack (Cameron Carey) – the “Stray” that follows him in his journey. Unfortunately, the revelation that Jack is Tracey’s traveling companion really only comes to the forefront of the narrative in the final third of the 90-minute runtime, upping the psychological drama and the existential dilemma that Tracey is dealing with. Up until this reveal, though, The Stray is preoccupied with flashbacks that introduce us to Tracey’s Marine buddies – all given the requisite nicknames to allow shorthand character introductions – and a handful of survivors. The runtime is split with Tracey’s arrival at a small farm and the family drama coming to a head there. These sections of the film are fairly by-the-numbers, with no real surprises to be had. The dialogue is functional and the performances are what one would expect from a film without the budget for more experienced actors. Leatherman is solid in the lead, carrying a visceral sense of despair and always seeming on the edge of just giving up. Mark S. Esch as the head of the farming Grey family also brings a believability to his role as he simply wants to keep his family together and protect his home. Ultimately, though, with Clark’s determination to make this a serious and grounded entry into the zombie genre, the film feels too restrained. The zombie threat is less tangible than the threat of violence among the human characters. Some viewers may feel the zombies needed to be more central, or at least needed to show up more naturally, instead of suddenly appearing to put exclamation points on moments of tension. But the zombies are not what this film is about. This is a film about loss and isolation, guilt and stubbornness. However, by playing it safe with the storytelling, the film doesn’t make any original thematic points or narrative leaps until it reaches the home stretch and by then it may be too late. When it does let loose the reins, we get a glimpse of what The Stray could have been: a very original and inventive take on guilt, war, and survival. Instead, we’re left with a film that is worth a look, especially for fans of low-budget horror, but could have been so much more. With that said, I’m really looking forward to whatever Clark directs next. The Stray should be available on DVD any day now and can be Pre-Ordered at the Open Sign Productions website. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.