If there’s one sensation I imagine much of the Hassle’s readership shares– especially right now– it’s the sensation of being adrift both personally and creatively. There’s little worse than those terrible moments where writer’s block comes at loggerheads with relationship frustrations, especially when suffered in isolation. During these dark nights of the soul, one could be forgiven for not noticing a malevolent spirit lurking in their home– and, in the end, is there even a distinction to be made?
This is the quadruple jeopardy in which Catherine (singer Teagan Johnston, of the real-life alt-pop band Little Coyote) finds herself. Catherine has made a name for herself as the lead singer and creative force of an apparently quite popular band, but when we meet her she’s in one of those awful breakups that doubles as a band implosion. To escape the fallout and get her head together, Catherine piles her gear in her beat-up sedan, drives out to her aunt’s beach house, and begins laying down tracks for a solo album of ethereal break-up dream-pop. Things are going as well as can be expected; Catherine is clearly in her element laying down keyboard tracks and vocal loops, and she manages to escape for a cover shoot (and maybe a little flirtation) with cute photographer Grace (Jenna Schaefer). But she’s still haunted, both by the emotional wreckage of her breakup and by the strange, shadowy figure she keeps glimpsing out the corner of her eye. Catherine attempts to power through, drowning out the former with nightly whiskey jags and convincing herself the latter is a figment of her imagination. Soon, the horror becomes too much for her to bear– but which horror is it?
The Strings was not shot under quarantine– snow covers the beach, and there are a couple of car scenes that would probably be impossible to shoot under current conditions– but it often feels like it could have been. Catherine spends the bulk of the movie in isolation, trying to stave off her outside stresses through creative pursuits and assorted substances. Her main contact throughout the film, apart from Grace and her unseen, increasingly harried manager, is her best friend, with whom she periodically video chats (at one point she gives her friend “the grand tour” by angling her laptop around the cabin, which has become something of a COVID-time ritual for anyone settling into a new or temporary home). When the terror comes, it’s not in deafening jump-scares or bleeding walls, but rather in a creeping sense that things aren’t quite right, punctuated by spiraling blackouts. Many of us can surely relate.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of The Strings is the presence of Johnston. Like many musicians turned first-time actors, Johnston’s performance has a certain lack of polish, and occasionally feels tentative. But like the best of them, her performance feels real. I don’t know enough about Johnston and her band to speculate how much of this story is biographical, but the hardships of juggling a band and a personal life in one’s 20s– and the particular perils of mixing the two– are easy to relate to, and Johnston embodies them like someone who’s lived them. When Johnston is video-chatting with her friend, there is an off-the-cuff frankness that most found-footage films can only aspire to (and this is not found footage), and the scenes in which she struggles through the creative process are as uncomfortably real as any work of direct cinema documentary. What’s more, Catherine is a unique character, who possesses a sexuality, body type, and creative power unusual among horror leads (all refreshingly uncommented on). There will be more technically accomplished performances this year, but Catherine will stick with me long after other characters have faded.
Of course, this is a horror movie– one of the headliners at this year’s all-virtual Salem Horror Fest, no less. As haunted house movies go, The Strings is a low-key one, more concerned with its protagonist as a character than with aggressive jump-scares or Conjuring-style world-building. But when things get spooky, director Ryan Glover knows how to push things just far enough to get under your skin. The scares here are mostly simple: a mysterious figure in the background of a photograph, a painting knocking rhythmically against a wall, an open door that was definitely locked a moment ago. But something about the dead-silent atmosphere and realistically mundane setting makes them especially chilling. This isn’t a carnival haunted house; rather, it’s staying up late at night spooking yourself reading about unexplained incidents.
The Strings likely won’t be for everybody; its mumblecore approach to drama can occasionally be exasperating (as in such fellow 2020 vacation home horrors as She Dies Tomorrow and The Beach House), and the dialogue scenes sometimes fall prey to the indie film temptation to give characters 1.5 times as many words as they should. Still, even in the current cycle of auteur-driven genre pictures, it’s rare to find a horror film this raw and personal. Anyone can make a haunted house movie, but a film about mixing an album and not being able to make it gel? Now that’s scary.
dir. Ryan Glover
World premiere via the 2020 Salem Horror Fest – click here for pass info!
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