Friday, 21 October 2016


Director: Nena Eskridge
Writer: Nena Eskridge
Producer: Nena Eskridge
Cast: Gabrielle Stone, Dan McGlaughlin, Samantha Fairfield Walsh
Country: USA
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: Online screener

Some people think that all I do is watch and review British horror films. While it’s true that most of the films reviewed on this website are horror, and many of them are British, I do actually have a self-imposed broad remit of ‘cult movies and the people who make them’ which means that I can – and do – review whatever the heck I want.

As it happens, work on my next book means that, away from the website, pretty much all I’ve been doing for months is watching and reviewing British horror films. So it’s a real pleasure when something like this turns up in my in-box: an American psycho-thriller that I’ve never heard of, wasn’t expecting and can watch with neither expectations nor commitments.

I say ‘psycho-thriller’ but specifically this is a ‘psycho bitch thriller’, slotting into that subgenre of questionably misogynist pictures that includes the likes of Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Questionable because there’s a debate to be had about whether the strength and power of these woman in getting what they want in a man’s world is enough to make up for the fact that they are bunny-boiling amoral psychopaths on permanent PMT that any man should run a freaking mile from – for Christ’s sake, what are you thinking? – no matter what his dick tells him.

The psycho bitch du jour is Jennifer, played by Gabrielle Stone (Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, Speak No Evil) whose mother is Dee Wallace Stone. Which is pretty impressive, although to people of my generation, Dee Wallace Stone was everyone’s mother. We first meet Jennifer leaping out of a campervan and running away, having stabbed (in the arm) the man who follows her. She makes it onto a train (part of the rail network around Philadelphia) and we assume at first that she is a victim, escaping an abusive situation that could have been anything on the spectrum between chauvinist boyfriend and sex slavery. Now she can maybe start a new life. (In reference to the previous paragraph, Jennifer was actually a male character in early drafts of the script...)

And indeed a new life is precisely what she does start, initially attaching herself to a retired insurance agent named Marvin (Andrew Sensenig: Don’t Look in the Basement 2, Terror Trap, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, The Last Exorcism Part II). These early scenes are – hang on, there’s a sequel to Don’t Look in the Basement? Really? When did that happen? Anyway, these early scenes are finely handled by the two actors: Marvin finds himself helping Jennifer – whoa, hang on. There’s a sequel to The Last Exorcism? That doesn’t even make sense. Jeez, the stuff that I find out when I check the IMDB. Where was I? Oh yes: Marvin finds himself helping Jennifer out of nothing much more than philanthropy with a dash of paternalism. She takes more than she’s offered, but still our sympathy lies with Jennifer who is clearly escaping a shit life.

Said sympathy will last for not much more of the film than Marvin does, though I don’t want to go into any detail about what happens to him. Suffice to say: it’s not nice and it makes us adjust our opinion of Jennifer for the whole of the rest of the film.

She takes a job as a cook, tossing burgers for the customers of a bar run by Greg (Dan McGlaughlin: also in Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard). His girlfriend Sarah (Samantha Fairfield Walsh, who has some seriously sexy eyebrows) is a waitress in the bar and there is a resident elderly female barfly, Edna (Arita Trahan: 21 Grams - who passed away in May 2015). It comes as no surprise to us that Jennifer has designs on Greg, and the second act is a study in Machiavellian manipulation as Jennifer carefully prises Greg and Sarah apart, then moves in. Some of this is quite disconcerting because Greg is clearly a nice guy, albeit one who seems to have difficulty keeping Little Greg inside his trousers, and Sarah also seems sweet and kooky (I mean, she’s a bit clingy and emotional but she’s Mother Theresa compared to Jennifer).

Eventually not only do Greg and Jennifer become an item, they also have a kid, a scenario which requires the largest of several suspensions of disbelief throughout the film. The baby is born at home without medical intervention, but it doesn’t seem credible that Greg (and others) would be fine with this happening, plus a complete absence of antenatal or neonatal care. It’s never made clear whether Jennifer’s identity, or indeed name, is real. She’s on the run, she has secrets both old and new, and she is somehow maintaining the pretense she creates throughout all this with no-one ever questioning who she is or where she came from. She doesn’t want any medical help with the baby, not least because it would show that she’s further advanced than she claims and hence it’s not actually Greg’s kid (it is presumably Marvin’s).

The thing is: that might be believable if this all took place in the remote one-horse town of Shitsville, Arkansas but it doesn’t. These characters live in (and the movie was filmed in) Chestnut Hill, a small town suburb of Philly, so how is Jennifer going to full term without ever having a scan, and without Greg or anyone else close to them being concerned that she's not had a scan?

I can accept Greg taking on Jennifer at the bar without resume or references, even without needing her address. It’s bar work and presumably it’s cash in hand. That’s fine but the other gap in believability here is the lack of interest by the cops in what happens to Marvin. There would have been some sort of investigation, and it would have uncovered something, surely. There’s actually the stump of a subplot when Sarah has coffee with her police detective brother Andrew (Sean Patrick Folster: episodes of Gotham and Mr Robot) because she’s starting to suspect that there’s more to Jennifer than meets the eye. Which is very perceptive, and I guess it’s fair that Andrew dismisses her concerns because she doesn’t even have a concrete accusation, let alone evidence. He does reappear right at the end but in a different context which has no real bearing on the plot and really just saved them hiring a different actor to play Other Cop.

I was disappointed that this aborted investigative subplot never went anywhere since it meant that revelations of Jennifer’s background – and hence her deceit and criminal record – were never really in danger of coming to light. Her relationship with Greg is strained, but her own web of lies is never under threat, denying us some tense plotting that would have enlivened the third act. Oh, and one other thing that seemed less than believable. Sarah hires a waiter, Michael (Ben Lyle Lotka) who is obviously gay. Jennifer uses this innocent friendship as part of her armoury, encouraging suspicions of infidelity in Greg’s mind (even though Michael is obviously gay). Yet it’s only much, much later, after the baby is born, that Greg discovers (actually, is told by someone) that Michael is gay. And to be fair to Greg, the fact that Michael has a boyfriend doesn’t mean he wasn’t necessarily also up to something with Sarah. You know, he could be bi.

The above nitpicking notwithstanding, I really enjoyed Stray. As long as you don’t think too carefully about the practicalities of Jennifer’s machinations (and Greg’s naivety), this is a gripping, solid thriller with well-rounded characters and well-crafted relationships that either draw them together or push them apart. The cast are all terrific and Nena Eskridge directs her debut feature with a polished, deft hand that makes her look like an old pro. Fine cinematography by David Landau (Dark Tarot) and top-notch editing by Sam Adelman (Donnie Brasco, Desperately Seeking Susan) complete the picture, almost literally.

Stray played festivals in 2015 and was released onto Amazon Prime in late 2016. Very much worth your time – check it out.

MJS rating: B+

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