The Strings is a melancholy melody of a ghost story that lingers and repeats in your brain like the appropriately softcore indie emo music the film’s titular musician creates on her keyboards and loop pedals, but also with a clever sprinkled grounding in science.
Real-life musician Teagan Johnson plays Catherine, a musician running away from her band and her ex to a secluded relative’s home so that she can work on her new music in relative solitude and peace, but as this is a horror film, it becomes very quickly apparent that Catherine is tortured, unable to sleep and is in store for a spine-tingling and ice cold haunting as a result.
Following the precedent set by It Follows, Ryan Glover’s film has a distinct and well-handled grasp that mood, tension and atmosphere can often be everything in a horror film. From the very first scene we see a cautious, deliberate and controlled unveiling of events onscreen, with slow lingering shots and terror-inducing wide pans from right to left, something the film employs as part of its cinematography throughout.
The locations are superb, from the claustrophobic, old and shuttered cottage Catherine is holed up in, to the beach with the teeth-like jagged tree trunks littered throughout it. Everything is heightened thanks to the inherent scariness of sparse and vast shots of the scenery and shots of open doorways down hallways and corridors.
It’s important for a film like this, for which music is such a big part of, not only the narrative, but also the overall mood, for The Strings to nail the other aspects to match Catherine’s bespoke musical creations and it absolutely nails it. Not only is the music suitably creepy in terms of its lyrics, but it’s mesmerising, melancholy and full of a quiet screaming pain. Most of the film is just watching Catherine exist, with several long takes of her simply making music surrounded by her instruments and I could simply watch, and listen to, this happen for hours.
Johnson is magnetic and captivating in her first onscreen film performance and her quiet relatability and understated insecurity, as well as her quite frankly impressive musical talent really makes her a more than suitable anchor for the whole film.
All of this contributes to an atmosphere that really makes the relatively minimal scares that The Strings has to offer hold so much more weight. Paintings shake by themselves, chairs move on their own, and Catherine constantly spots a shadowy figure in the corner of her eye, in empty spaces on photographs and in the distance when she’s out and about, the whole time it’s edging closer.
This slow-burn, or perhaps more appropriately slow-chill, really helps to accentuate Catherine’s clear insecurities. She’s struggling with her art, her past, the pressures her manager puts on her to interview, the people far too interested in her personal life, her inability to sleep at night that videos of quantum physics barely help with and so much more. Ultimately the information presented in the throwaway physics videos, particularly string theory, comes into play to sum up all of Catherine’s issues and literalise them in a horrific way – she’s not in control of her life.
Whilst The Strings does have a lot to say about the above, it’s also an ode to creative things, obviously music plays a big part of it, but the photography presented through Catherine’s love interest Grace (Jenna Schaefer) also plays a big part in the film, and is also stunning. There’s even a loving and narratively relevant tribute to the good old fashioned ghost story. The story also understands that music and photography can be deeply personal, windows into someone’s psyche, and at one point in the film, they’re used as seduction.
But the thing I loved most about The Strings is that it understands and wields the obvious connection and similarities between music and ghosts to such great effect. A good song can embed itself into your brain, repeat itself over and over and refuse to let you go, it follows you everywhere. The Strings is a sensory ghost tale that knows this and recreates it, so that it too follows you long after you’ve watched it!
You can find more of our Salem Horror Fest 2020 coverage here