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Salem Horror Fest 2020: “The Strings” Review — Ryan Glover’s Icy Slow-Burn Examines Horrors of Writer’s Block

Isolation, in theory, sounds like a good idea when you need to be alone in order to pull through something. Quiet environments produce a good amount of productive activity, but true solace leaves you alone with your thoughts. And that can be a dangerous, haunting place. Currently streaming at Salem Horror Fest is “The Strings,” an icy slow-burn that moderately expands on this harrowing internal predicament with a mix of the supernatural. 

Musician Catherine (Teagan Johnston) travels from the comforts of Ontario to her aunt’s remote cottage to take some time to herself. In addition to getting over a recent breakup, Catherine figures this would be an apt opportunity to write some music for her new album. She sets up a makeshift studio on the living room floor, tinkering with different sounds to see what works. Catherine occasionally takes a break, one day traveling with local photographer Grace (Jenna Schaefer) to perform an intimate photoshoot within an abandoned house on Prince Edward Island responsible for a series of unexplainable deaths. When Catherine returns to the cottage, however, she begins to notice a strange figure in the distance, slowly getting closer.

There are three main standouts of “The Strings,” and indie musician Teagan Johnston (“Little Coyote”) inhabits two of them. As a debut film performance, Johnston is great at demonstrating the restrained frustration of waiting for ideas to blossom into what you need them to be. It’s all about waiting. And when she does manage to tinker and experiment, it provides Johnston, coupled with Adrian Ellis’s heavenly yet sinister score, a platform to display her natural talent. She truly has a tremendous voice. 

It’s director and cinematographer Ryan Glover’s eye for barren, haunted landscapes though that gives “The Strings” its most effective touch. Glover captures your attention almost immediately with a striking opening shot of two hands soiled in crimson red blood, gripping a mysterious box in the grass. This dialogue-free prologue sets up an atmospheric dread that lingers in parts. I really appreciate cinematographers who can harness the stillness of a quiet setting and its underlying menace. Glover pulls off a gripping shot of Catherine, shrouded in darkness, gripping a lit mirror that very much stuck with me.

Teagan Johnston in “The Strings” I Salem Horror Fest

I’m sure that everyone who watches “The Strings” will leave with something different. I interpreted the permeating eeriness to Catherine’s struggle with composing her music. Writer’s block can be an obstacle more terrifying than any supernatural apparition. It’s the ghost of the unwritten words that are just in your reach, yet can’t quite be put to paper. It’s up to you to organize them in a manner that does justice to what you’re attempting to say. And as Catherine sits on the floor, messing around with her equipment to find the perfect rhythm, the tension arrives in the form of whether or not this is what she’s been looking for. 

With that said, for as much I appreciated Glover’s patient shot compositions, it pains me that I didn’t love this more. I adore ambiguous slow-burn thrillers about creative people losing themselves in an isolated setting, and the slow burn here works in parts. It’s a visually striking film through and through. And yet, for as great a performance Johnston gives, the central character study within — and its conclusion — left me, well, cold. It will depend on your patience for the somber pacing in store. 

While “The Strings” didn’t wholly draw me in, it still stands tall as a beautifully made film about isolation that makes me interested to see what Glover conjures up next.

Featured Image: Teagan Johnston in “The Strings”

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