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Salem Horror Fest 2020: Nerve Shredding Tension Fills ‘The Strings’

There’s a controversial theory in physics that suggests that all forces, particles, interactions, and manifestations of reality are connected. It’s known as string theory. Essentially, or as I understand it, instead of many different components working separately, these fundamentals work together to (theoretically) help explain how something like gravity works. Trust me, someone who is far more qualified to explain the science absolutely should.

Now, why on earth would I ever start a ghost story review with a short blurb about string theory? Maybe there was an unseen force behind it? See what I did there? Ryan Glover’s The Strings goes a step beyond your ordinary ghost story to feature a sinister force that lives in a place between worlds to manipulate an aspiring musician in ours.

Catherine stands outside in a heavy winter jacket smoking a cigarette. A neon sign reads "MOTEL" on the roof's overhang above her.
Catherine (Teagan Johnston) takes a smoke break.

The Strings begins with a shot of bloody hands holding a toolbox. As the wind rustles through the surrounding grass, the image and sound grab your attention instantly. The music kicks up as we see a man walk along the beach and stop dead center on the camera. The anxiety-filled tone created by the music combined with a slow-moving panorama shot instantly raises your heartbeat. The man moves from one side of the beach to the newly rotated ocean side, hands bloody, walking into the water. The thick, tense atmosphere created right away gives you a feeling of how The Strings intends to operate.

The film centers on Catherine (Teagan Johnston), a young woman with an incredible voice. Catherine travels a great distance to isolate herself in her aunt’s cabin to work on her first solo record after a breakup with a bandmate results in their hiatus. I cannot say enough good things about Teagan Johnston. She has a commanding voice and some pretty good acting chops too. Her band, Little Coyote, wrote The Strings’ songs which are a predominant force alongside Adrian Ellis’ score.

Catherine hires Grace (Jenna Schaefer), a photographer, to take the photos for her upcoming release. Grace excitedly tells Catherine of a place she’s been saving for this kind of occasion: an empty farmhouse with a unique history of what appear to be murder-suicides. Grace’s narration of the house’s history of events is one of The Strings’ keys to unlocking the secrets of the film.

Catherine sits on the floor surrounded by various instruments, cords and electronic equipment.
Catherine prepares to release her solo material.

Ok so I have to admit something here. While watching this part of the film, I absolutely had to rewind and relook (more than once). There’s a scene where Catherine and Grace are taking their photos in the cursed house and Catherine is sitting on a staircase posing. If you look into the blank space to the right, you can almost make out an image standing beside her, blending into the wallpaper that surrounds her. I still can’t tell if this was on purpose, a trick of the light, maybe the video quality dipping, the fact it was 1 am and my eyes were done, or if the film has gone meta in the fourth dimension. It still has me freaked out.

I started to wonder if director Ryan Glover was playing with the viewer, the way Ari Aster embedded camouflaged faces of Dani’s sister in Midsommar. In one of the next scenes, Catherine goes on to view the photos, and it looks like my eye might have caught on. As Catherine scrolls through, she sees interesting watermarks in the farmhouse attic, a face in the wall behind her in the kitchen, and a shadow next to the staircase where I thought I saw something. The music started right up again. The movie was owning me.

As the film continues to develop, and Catherine becomes further haunted, I became more and more paranoid about what was going to happen on screen. I started paying more attention to the director’s use of lights and shadow, where they were coming from, and if there was anything else I should be catching.

Catherine poses for the off camera photographer while standing in a kitchen adorning a rustic knotty pine look
Catherine poses for one of Grace’s photos.

Catherine gets up to check on a knocking she thinks is coming from outside her door. Creeping softly from the bedroom to the living space, she turns to find the painting on the wall rattling. As she reaches for it, it stops. Bewildered and cautioned, Catherine stares at the painting for a moment. As her gaze on the painting begins to wind down in intensity, her musical equipment produces a heavy noise, sending me up off my seat. The movie will succeed a few more times at this before its end.

The Strings is superb at the jump scare through its use of soft or no sound. Being that the film is themed with a musician in an abandoned and isolative landscape, Glover again feasts on his atmosphere to deliver the goods. The minute I strain to hear the theoretical physics Catherine is watching on her laptop or suspect the movie is done setting up a scare, it seems to strike.

Though the film showcases a similar build and pacing to other indie ghost stories like I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House or The Innkeepers, the atmosphere is far more similar to the Paranormal Activity movies. Patient slow pans create tension and low or soundless scenes invoke anticipation. For me, The Strings induced more of the heavy anxiety I felt while watching the first Insidious, where I literally needed to stop and take a breath before continuing. I definitely took a break during The Strings, too.

Catherine stares into a brightly lit mirror while the mirrored face stares back toward the camera.

There’s an element to The Strings that I’m obsessed with and have to address, and that’s the science invested into the story. Catherine awakens every night during what is called the witching or the devil’s hour, but as she tells Grace, “It’s like waking up in another reality almost.” A study published by the International Journal of Dream Research in 2014 indicated that melatonin levels are typically at their peak during the 3 am hour and could possibly explain why most people’s unexplained phenomena occur at this time. I think Glover is trying to interweave this aspect of science and the unexplained by suggesting in Grace’s response that we’re “seeing the strings being pulled in this [reality].”

Glover has brought to life a fantastic twist on the modern ghost story. It’s a hell of a ride, and when I ended the film around the witching hour, I felt uneasy going to bed. That is the power of good storytelling, and that is the power of The Strings.

The Strings will have its world premiere at this year’s all-virtual Salem Horror Fest 2020 during its first weekend beginning October 2. An all-access pass will allow you to see all the films, panels, retrospectives, and more on both the October 2 and October 9 weekends.

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Sean Parker

Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston and loves all types of horror movies.

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