Surviving the fallout of a childhood friendship proves harder than surviving a deadly weekend in the woods. Written and directed by Alexandra Spieth, Stag is a highly nuanced and disturbing atmospheric horror thriller. Adam Kromelow and Daniel Rufolo employ a varied and electric score to underline the shifting moods and heightening tension. At the same time, the film’s lead, Mary Glen Fredrick, is winsome in the “urban loner” role.
Jenny (Fredrick) is a woman whose mediocre life is visible in everything she does. Her shoddy apartment is littered with unpacked boxes, and the dyed ends of her hair are faded, dry, and brittle. When invited to her estranged childhood friend’s bachelorette party last minute, she stands out sharply against the glossy, bright assembly of Mandy’s (Elizabeth Ramos) other friends. It isn’t just Jenny’s grungy appearance that sets her apart. She’s brash and awkward, unused to the rules of the friend group, and uncertain of how to act around Mandy. Jenny’s presence as an outsider allows her to notice that something isn’t right about Mandy’s new best friend, Willa (Liana Hunt).
Stag explores multiple themes of femininity and female solidarity. Jenny’s boyfriend assaulted Mandy in their youth, and Jenny refused to believe her. This lack of empathy and belief ends their friendship, and the mistake is why Jenny is eager to regain Many’s trust and approval. Symbolically, Jenny’s inability to relate to the other women and play a hyper-feminine role represents her betrayal of Mandy. Jenny rejects her femininity when she breaks the bonds of sisterhood. In contrast, Willa’s affected femininity and toxic positivity symbolize a different kind of betrayal that still prioritizes men over women. In the third act, a jaw-dropping reveal showcases the atrocities some women commit to gain male attention.
At its heart, a story of friendship, the narrative hinges critically upon Jenny and Mandy –– both as characters and women who were once friends. Fredrick and Ramos are cast perfectly and complement each other’s performances. Fredrick captures Jenny’s desperation and otherness with commendable ease, while Ramos is incredibly likable, the kind of friend we’d all like to have.
The minor roles also have a moment to shine. Constance (Kate Wieland) is memorable for the glass-shattering screams she delivers. Hunt brings a barely-restrained ferocity to Willa’s fascinating character, and Stephanie Hogan plays Willa’s wide-eyed, unnerving sister, Casey, with glaring conviction.
The score composed by Adam Kromelow and Daniel Rufolo is a solid and prominent presence through every twist and turn. Like the picturesque setting, it shifts to reflect the ebb and flow of Stag’s rising tension. Everything about the film is transitive and fluid, becoming what Spieth needs to tell its story of deceit, manipulation, fear, and forgiveness.
Women discovering their friendships are built on lies are a staple of horrors and thrillers. Stag is no exception. Spieth’s story of righting a childhood wrong pairs nicely with the sublime cinematography, score, and performances.