I’ve taken to a new routine at night: after work and training, I like to settle in, get under a blanket, and watch a horror movie while I grade my students’ work. It’s a weirdly comforting mood: I watch something spooky, I snuggle my pets, I get my second job done. This means I have the Shudder app in the prime spot on my Xbox right now, and while I often just put it on the Shudder TV channel (which streams 24/7, you just turn it on and something freaky will appear on your device), I also like to peruse the new and featured selections. That’s how I found The Advent Calendar last week, and it’s how I found The Strings the other night.
I almost didn’t go for it: the user rating was two skulls (out of five! Think stars, but for horror nerds). Obviously, not everything on the service is a home run, but that rating didn’t bode well. I figured, I’d put it on, and if it didn’t grab me, I’d just go to the next.
What I found, however, was an intriguing, intimate, at times genuinely scary art film. It’s not for everyone: whether you will enjoy The Strings depends entirely on how much you are interested in watching a musician go through it: suffering depression, creative and professional malaise and isolation — as well as, yes, some supernatural spookiness. It’s all about long, lingering shots on either lead Teagan Johnston’s face or on icy, ethereal landscapes. It feels, honestly, like a much more indie version of something like Under The Skin, obviously with a different plot, but sharing much of the same alienated tone.
The Strings follows Catherine (Johnston) as she travels to a hyper-isolated town on Prince Edward Island in the dead of winter, following a breakup with her boyfriend and band. She’s trying to get her creative juices flowing, and she takes up in her aunt’s slightly creepy cabin, just off a frozen beach. Not much happens, really: she travels, she flails creatively, she walks on the beach. Sometimes she plays gigs in rundown bars and takes interviews with music journalists who really just want to know if the band is getting back together.
All the while, she is haunted. She hears noises at night. Sometimes she sees things. When she can’t sleep, she turns to YouTube lectures by quantum physicists to learn about spooky actions at a distance. She falls for a cute local photographer, and the two do a photoshoot at a haunted barn nearby, intensifying the creepy vibes tenfold. But you get the sense that the whole trip was destined to be weird, ghost stories or not.
If (real life recording artist) Johnston weren’t up to the task, the whole thing would sink. She’s the lead and really, one of three characters with any screen time: other principles include Grace, the sweet photographer with a crush and Anita, her friend who only shows up on zoom calls. Other people are offscreen, unseen and often unheard: her ex boyfriend Kevin and pushy manager on the phone.
The other “character” is a mysterious, shadowy presence who disrupts her sleep and shows up in the film’s spookiest and most unsettling moments, always accompanied by some truly intense choral selections. Music fuels the whole thing, really: Catherine is a musician, the whole reason she’s in this isolated cabin in a far-north town is to produce new songs, and we see her struggling, making beats, singing, and trying to write.
She drinks, she pines, she croons. And she is a magnetic, sympathetic presence throughout. I felt for Catherine, I wanted her to succeed, and when she snuggles under the blankets at night, learning about quantum theory and trying to make sense of her universe, well, in the words of Blackbear, I felt that.
Is this movie a little arthouse-pretentious? With its longing shots and languid cuts and intense sound design, yes, yes it is. I know exactly how this kind of thing might come off to a Shudder subscriber who is there for slashers and gore and practical monster effects primarily, and I’m here for those things all day, every day (except slashers, those can get boring). But The Strings is a valid vision of horror as well, as meditative and introspective and slightly up its own ass as it is, it scared the shit out of multiple times. I am a horror superfan, I will watch anything and usually enjoy it and sleep like a baby that night. I will admit that, in one particularly intense scene, I had to watch with a hand over my eyes, peeking out between my fingers.
There is an intensity to the creepiness that comes with the more mundane narrative: this is a woman just walking around a cabin at night, hearing weird noises. It’s real, it’s readable, it’s inherently relatable: she’s in a place that feels both boring and uncomfortably alien. The nightmare of being alone — and then, suddenly not being alone — hits me where I live. The very existential but very real need to try and explain the universe when you are hurting and isolated from others is relatable. Catherine’s struggles feel personal and lived in, and again, Johnston is very much up to the task of carrying the film, alongside the eerie cinematography and sound design.
There are areas where the film stumbles a bit into cliche, and if you aren’t fond of Catherine/Johnston’s style of indie alternative music, you’d probably best steer clear. But I was never bored by The Strings, despite its deep sense of isolation and often literal iciness. It’s a compelling and even heartbreaking mood piece, and frankly, deserves better than that two-skull treatment.