STRAY **** Russia 2019 Dir: Olga Gorodetskaya. 90 mins
The ‘Evil Child’ subgenre is alive and well in the horror film. Unfortunately, we may see more real cases as the pandemic rages, taking a toll on the well-being of the young. Obviously, not to the extent of this film; however, the seeds are being sown for stories and art to emerge. The Russian made Horror film Stay (2019) is a strong example of an inventive, subtle story that absorbs you into its world.
Stray (2019) or Evil Boy (2019) is also known by its Russian title, Tivar. It is directed by Olga Gorodetskaya and co-written by her and Anna Starobinets. It is female directed Horror done right. The story combines subtle elements of The Omen, replacing the menace of devilry with the common feeling of Loss.
The essential element of the film is filling the void of the loss of a missing and presumed dead child by an affluent Russian couple Polina (Elena Lyadova) and Igor (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). The couples dearly loved son Vanya (Sevastian Bugaev) does not return from going to play. Igor gives Vanya permission to play at a park until six o’clock. Igor gives Vanya his father’s watch to tell the time when to return as Igor’s father gave him years ago. The boy does not return. The film opens with Igor having to identify the remains of a boy whose face is ‘smashed in.’ The police lift the covering and Igor says that it is not his son and his boy had a foot deformity. The policeman look and say that this must be his boy as it fits the description. Igor denies it is and calmly walks out. This moment is an essential part of the clever ending of the film.
The story of Polina, Igor and Vanya’s life is told in non-obvious flashbacks when needed in the story. What makes those moments seem interesting is they are fragments or memories like one would have when thinking back to a remark, a piece of clothing, a favorite food of a dearly loved deceased person.
Polina and Igor are strong people yet grieving internally. They reach out to an orphanage for another boy. The orphanage, which is housed in a physically Gothic broken down building, houses war orphans. When the couple arrive, police are on the scene of a suicide of a custodian in the basement of the facility. When Polina looks in the window she sees fleeting glimpses of garments moving and something in the shadows. She also sees the corpse of the custodian on the floor with his horrific head wound. Polina finds her way down into the basement, where she steps over the corpse and sees a child wrapped in rags, shaved, bald staring at her from the shadows. Polina beckons the child forward to her, initially with no result. They look into each other’s eyes and something passes between them. The child leaps forward with a growl into her arms and they hug closely. In one of the film’s startling moments, we sees Polina carrying the still clinging child up the stairs, stepping over the corpse of the dead custodian. The corpse opens what’s left of its mouth and tries to say something to her but fails. Polina continues up the stairs with the child.
The child becomes known as the “stray” in the facility. The boy growls, walks on all fours and exhibits feral behavior with no speech. Sister Isadore (Roza Khayrullina), who is an elder at the facility, says that the custodian was caring for the child at the time of his death (gunshot to the head). When Polina expresses she wants to adopt the boy, Igor goes along with it. Sister Isadore warns them not to as they will not be able to handle him. Her warning is ignored. Polina has a special bond with the boy, and this is shown in his lesser displays of aggression.
Through a series of events, the boy is renamed Vanya by Polina after their missing son. The boy assumes the characteristics of the original Vanya in Polina’s eyes, even to the point of her seeing their missing son in the mirror when brushing the hair of boy they adopted. She convinces Igor to call him by Vanya’s name and treat him as such. She feed the boy one of the original Vanya’s favorite food dishes. This is heartily enjoyed.
The family is happy. Polina becomes pregnant again, and is overjoyed with the prospect of another son. The mood in the film changes and events happen, revealing a subtle plot with the boy. All is not what it seems with the boy. This is inventively demonstrated when Polina goes for an ultrasound in her doctor’s office. During the examination, the fetus is shown shaking on the monitor as it senses the presence of the boy, who is near Polina. The fetus tremors, and flays about. In one horrific moment, it turns directly to the camera, stopping as the boy moves away. Other examples of unearthly behavior occur in the playground, a drive by a policeman on a snowy road and the moving of a cart to strike the pregnant Polina.
Not giving the ending away or telling all that happens in the film, suffice it to say it becomes evident that supernatural powers are in play. He is an entity that thrives on loss, and assumes characteristics of the lost loved one in order to receive their unconditional love. When that love is not unconditional and total, the entity will do anything to preserve its access to adoration.
Stray (2019) features fine performances by the entire cast. The film is well crafted with good colors, craggy ruins, pristine parks and glimpses of Russian life. The acting maybe subdued for some; it exhibits the Russian taciturn behavior at times. It remains effective. The fact that this is written and directed by women is evident in the sensitivity around the handling of the loss of a child. Not to say a male director would not be successful with the story. The film makers do make the character of Polina the motivator of the story: in fact, almost the protagonist on the level of the supernatural entity. The role of Igor is treated equally and the two blend together well. Igor becomes the voice or reason for the situation as it unfolds. The ending of the film is as brilliant and subtle as fingernails moving slowly on a chalkboard.
Stray (2019) has a good pace to it with a balance of sadness and happiness to a story of grieving parents seeking solace. The film is sub titled and some of the titles are hard to read due to a white background. The story itself may not appeal to those wanting a ‘malevolent baby’ with tons of gore. There is gore, but it’s subtle and skillful –like the whole film from start to finish.
Review by Terry Sherwood