Stray Movie Review

Written by Ryan Holloway

Released by Sony Pictures


Directed by Olga Gorodetskaya
Written by Olga Gorodetskaya and Anna Starobinets
2020, 90 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
Grimmfest UK Premiere on 7th October 2020

Elena Lyadova as Polina Belova
Vladimir Vdovichenkov as Igor Belov
Sevastian Bugaev as Stray/ Vanya
Yan Runov as Vanya Belov


Hot on the heels of one of 2020’s best horror films, Sputnik, Russia serves up another dark delight in Stray, the story of a grieving couple who take in a, let’s say, troubled child. Marking her feature-length directorial debut, Olga Gorodetskaya has crafted something very interesting and not short of the odd big scare.

We first meet husband and wife Igor (Vdovichenkov) and Polina (Lyadova) as they are starting to get their lives back together after their son Vanya went missing in mysterious circumstances. When visiting a local orphanage, they meet a feral child who Polina instantly connects with and they decide to take him home, even despite a grave warning from one of the nuns who resides there. As the child starts to settle in, Polina, clearly projecting her longing for her missing son onto him – even naming him Vanya – ignores the many red flags raised by his aggressive behaviour and, hold on, where’s the cat gone? Uh-oh.

Igor is far from happy with the situation and fears that this is a dangerous and unhealthy relationship. He’s not wrong.

stray 01 stray 02

As the story unfolds and we watch the child begin to form a stronger bond with his new parents, particularly with his new mother Polina. There begins a shift in parental rolesand Igor becomes the main carer, suddenly revitalised by the fact that he now has a son again, but Polina begins to suspect that all is not what it seems with the child. This feeling of dread is exacerbated when she becomes pregnant and her maternal instincts kick-in creating distance between herself and the boy.

Stray is a real mixed bag. On the one hand it borrows from some of the classics – The Omen, The Exorcist and The Orphanage, and uses these influences well, but somehow can’t quite hold it all together. When Igor’s feelings switch from fear to love for the boy it seemingly comes from nowhere, it’s especially odd in the face of some extremely violent behaviour midway when he introduces him to some boys in the park – let’s just say further play dates might be out of the question.

stray 03 stray 04

As the behaviour gets more sinister and we start to see the real evil behind those young eyes, the film becomes something of a detective story as Igor, channelling Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn from The Omen, tries to discover the truth of how Vanya came to be at the orphanage and whether he is the cause of the destructive events that have gone from bad to worse. Peppered within this story are some truly frightening scenes and more than a few hair-raising subtle moments that show the real talent of Gorodetskaya and her writing partner Anna Starobinets.

The film also looks gorgeous, dark and crisp, with top camera work from a relative newcomer. Stars Elena Lyadova and Vladimir Vdovichenkov are a highlight, both from 2014’s critically acclaimed Leviathan, their characters' pain is intensely believable, with a palpable grief that drives the majority of their early actions without ever feeling jarring. Sevastian Bugaev as the titular stray is also superb - frightening and subtle.

stray 05 stray 06

The problems for the film do start to surface as we hurtle towards its conclusion and the brilliant work in the first half does goes astray, for want of a better word, with some truly and strangely laughable visual effects that don’t draw you out of the movie as much as hurl you violently out of it. These shots could have been taken out and it would have still worked narratively so it just seems bizarre.

Stray deals with grief in a very mature and interesting way and does manage to get more things right than wrong, but sadly the editorial decisions with the VFX, along with some confusing emotional shifts from the main characters half way through, do make the difference between a modern classic and, as is the case here, a near miss. I am, however, definitely looking forward to seeing future work from Gorodetskaya.


Movie: 3.5 Star Rating Cover

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Ryan Holloway
Ryan HollowayWebsite:
Staff Reviewer
As far back as he can remember Ryan has always had an obsession with films, and horror in particular. 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' and ‘Alien’ were the first films that really stuck in the psyche and rather than scarring his tiny mind and running up a huge therapy bill, those films created a fascination with the dark side of life and art. Brought up by Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers (not literally), horror will always fascinate him no matter how absurd, dark, twisted, barmy or just plain wrong. Horror DNA gives him the opportunity, and excuse, to legitimise his macabre tastes and watch whatever strangeness comes his way.
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