These last two years have felt like a decade. We’ve said it time and time again in our reviews and essays, and I’m sure you lovely readers out there are tired of hearing it. However, because art imitates life, we’re likely going to be talking about pandemic horror films for some time to come. Writer/director Nick Gregorio’s Old Strangers is one of these films. Set against the backdrop of the pandemic shutdown, this Body Snatchers film uses themes of social panic, relationship strain, and mistrust ingrained in us from constantly evolving information to tell its story.
Images of the landscape in the town of Big Bear, the mom-and-pop shops and idyllic lakeside provide more clues to Old Strangers’ underlying themes. Closed and boarded-up shops assert the struggle of main street stores across America. Concurrently, the images of American flags and religious assertion resemble a specific group of people looking to “make America great again.”
We first meet friends Sarah (Madeleine Humphries), Michael (Ted Evans), and Danny (Colton Eschief Mastro) coming together in the snowy mountain town after receiving negative COVID tests and feeling safe enough to spend the weekend housed in a cabin together. It’s a joyous reunion, the kind we’ve all experienced somewhere in the last year or so, but like all horror films, it’s destined to be short-lived. Things turn sour after Danny is stung by a curious-looking lifeform mistaken for an insect nest, a copious amount of which crowd the forest floor.
The cast feels extremely comfortable with each other and their roles, so the acting here is worth noting. Many dialogue-driven scenes are well executed, giving the feeling that these actors were simply being filmed in conversation. If the dialogue was actually written into the script, it’s impressive, and the actors deserve applause for their deliveries as well. Independent film rarely has that feeling of a well-oiled machine, but Old Strangers nails it, as well as the cinematography. Many of the shots are absolutely gorgeous. Slow zooms on focused spots bestow a daunting feeling of claustrophobia, especially with the surrounding area being out of focus.
The surreal atmosphere pays off to outstanding effect, often making its subject look like a scaled miniature model. As the situation spins out of control, the parallel to pandemic isolation and circumstantial disbelief is shown in the scope of the film’s principal shots. There’s also a Terrence Malick Tree of Life portion to the film that detours from the personal chaos to show the scope of an incredible journey. The alien vessel drifting through space on a course for Earth has very little to do with these characters but provides the perspective that even the tiniest things can affect us. The shots are vast and wonderfully cinematic, highlighting the unknowns of the universe in parallel to the mysterious origins of COVID-19. Where we all once largely considered a pandemic of this magnitude to be in the realm of science-fiction, how should the idea of a singular alien spore infecting our environment be considered?
After being stung, Danny’s finger starts to rot. Along with his body horror change, he begins exhibiting some out-of-character tendencies. There’s an incident with the local police Danny avoids, but Michael notices a similar strangeness in how the officer (Gregorio) asserts, “It’s great to see some fresh faces.” This welcome to the neighborhood asks the viewer to theorize the town’s assimilation, and what Danny is experiencing will soon be the fate of the others. There’s a saying among republicans that condescends to democrats in their youth as something to put up with before they become republicans later in life. The officer’s threatening welcome proposes a similar sentiment.
Old Strangers is an interesting horror film. I loved how Gregorio uses the pandemic to fit an invasion narrative while offering an insightful political study into fear-breeding-fear philosophy. The story is slightly broken, however. I fear changes may have been made to adjust the script, including cuts to scenes that seem to be missing. It could be for pacing or budget as opposed to COVID schedules. Whenever I wanted the story to go deeper into a particular mythos, it held back, not deviating from the singular storyline. As a result, the pacing becomes somewhat uneven. One of the most noticeable alerts to script changes or reshoots in the film comes after Sarah and Michael spend the night together. The three characters talk about their contact on Zoom in the first act, while conversations about Danny in the later scene rouse the idea that first attempts at the script called for a different period of separation for these friends, suggesting earlier drafts called for their encounter to be a college reunion.
The political ideology of the film remains a separate entity from the film; it’s there and makes itself known, but the underlying message is sure to either be ignored or embraced. The idea is that we meet many different people in life, some with mutual viewpoints, some conflicting. In an early scene, Sarah, Michael, and Danny wax political, but the topic is navigated by the characters evadingly so that they can all enjoy each other’s company (the opposite of so many holiday dinners). Sarah and Michael soon find that they have to keep their distance from Danny as he becomes increasingly violent and authoritative. His commanding tendencies spark the metaphor of pushing faux science to create a world of like-minded individuals in a town where everyone seems to behave similarly and to have scared off the “fresh faces.”
Based on the film’s title, there’s also this idea that Danny has always been this person. The infection isn’t changing him. It’s just bringing out who he is. In college, he may have hidden his aggressive traits or political affiliation, assimilating to that collective, and now he’s found one that allows him to be himself. Essentially, your friends may not ever be who you think they are.
While Old Strangers isn’t the greatest invasion thriller I’ve ever seen, I admire a lot about Gregorio’s film. It’s not perfect, but it isn’t bereft of value either. The film is a bit on the messy side, but it’s also watchable, well-acted, thrives in its technical achievements, and it’s a breeze to get through. If you have an appreciation for independent film, you’ll find a lot to admire here. It’s clear Gregorio has some great concepts he’s playing with, and I hope we see more from the director in this genre.
Old Strangers is now available on VOD.