Salem Horror Fest 2020 Review: The Strings ★★★★

One of the more esoteric films premiering this weekend at the digital Salem Horror Festival is director Ryan Glover’s debut The Strings. I’d call the film a slow-burn, except The Strings doesn’t burn at all. Instead, it’s a deeply unsettling film that sticks to your bones like a deadly winter chill, seeping under your skin before you realize what’s happening. By the time you do, it’s too late. It has you.

The movie centers on Catherine (Teagan Johnston) who is spending some time at a remote house on Prince Edward Island, a chilly, windswept patch of land with, it seems, no one else around. The Strings unfurls its story slowly. Deliberately. For much of the film, we are asked simply to watch Catherine exist without realizing exactly why; exact machinations of plot are unimportant until we get to know who she is in the quiet moments, when no one needs anything from her. She seems introspective and tortured, unable to sleep and unhappy with how she fills her waking hours.

What people do want from her, it turns out, is gossip and music. Catherine is in a band. Or was, anyway, until she broke up with her partner, causing the band to go on hiatus. Now, she’s working on a solo album. It’s a little stranger, a little less guitar-heavy than what she’s known for. She’s inspired by the shadows and the swirls in the paneling of her house, and by the panic inside her mind. She also strikes up a relationship with Grace (Jenna Schaefer), a local photographer she hires to shoot moody snapshots of her. Perhaps they’ll be album artwork someday, a reminder that she was here.

Catherine (Teagan Johnston) sees a man in the distance. Courtesy of Observer Effect Productions.

You’re probably thinking that this doesn’t sound like a horror film. For most of The Strings’ runtime, it’s not. But the longer Catherine spends cooped up in this cottage, surrounded by her pedals and her drum machine and her piano, she starts to lose it a bit. Unusual things start to happen. First it’s a painting on the wall that seems to vibrate a bit. Then it’s a shadowy figure down the sand, staring. And then he’s in her house.

By the time the tension in the film escalates, it’s nearly unbearable. The quiet, slow pace allows Glover to get away with using typical horror movie tricks — a figure at the end of a hallway, or a chair that moves on its own — and have them land like crashing thunder or jolts of electricity.

The Strings pulls one of my least-favorite screenwriting tricks, which is having a character watching something that turns out to be resonant to their lives, purely so the audience gets clued in on a particular theme or some essential background information. In this case, Catherine has a habit of putting on physics lectures as white noise when she tries to sleep, filling the silence with explainer videos about parallel realities, introducing the idea of string theory into the film. It’s a relatively minor quibble, though, because everything else is excellent. The film looks great; the shots of the snowy, lonely shores of Prince Edward Island are stunning, as are the claustrophobic shadows that choke the cottage where Catherine creates her music. Teagan Johnston is utterly captivating in the lead role; she’s a musician herself rather than an experienced actress, but you’d never know it from how natural she seems on camera.

A chilly opening shows a man walking into the sea. Courtesy of Observer Effect Productions.

The Strings won’t be for everyone. When I say it’s slow I mean slow, and some viewers will understandably not have the patience for how long it takes for the action to pick up… especially as part of a film festival with buckets of blood and gore drenching so many other selections. But for those willing to stick it out, willing to engage with the sly nods to theoretical physics and to try to unravel the obscure, obfuscated haunting at the film’s core, it’s a rewarding experience.

By Eric Langberg

The Strings has its world premiere at the Salem Horror Festival, watch from October 2nd-11th with an All Access Pass, or during Weekend I from October 2nd-4th.

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