The debut from writer-director Ryan Glover takes the art of subtlety and slowly walks with it to mostly frustrating effect
As an artist, what’s more horrifying than having to confront your very self and the things you make? That’s what Canadian horror The Strings, Shudder’s newest original from writer-director Ryan Glover and co-writer Krista Dzialoszynski, dares to ask in this atmospheric but frustratingly unassertive psychological thriller.
Real life alt-indie-pop musician Teagan Johnston plays Catherine, a woman reeling from a breakup seeking refuge at her aunt’s tucked away seaside cottage in rural Canada. Here, she begins to work on new music, while at the same time growing close with a local photographer named Grace (Jenna Schaefer). After a photoshoot at an abandoned house reveals some troubling apparitions in the final images, Catherine begins to experience uncanny hallucinations.
As though working on parallel plains, Catherine’s new song gradually comes together as her grip on reality simultaneously falls apart. The songstress’ descent into a lucid mental state is inextricably tied to her new found sense of independence as an artist, navigating unfamiliar ground, both physically and mentally, and being haunted by her past, present and possibly her future.
The Strings relies heavily on subtlety and inference, which ultimately comes off as a weakness. It’s a film that begs the viewer to see the horror for themselves, through terror that’s low-level and underlying, forcing audiences to scratch it out with their own nails. Though this requirement of effort has worked well in some instances of horror, here it mostly falls flat. Instead, Glover’s film skirts around most of the interesting ideas about artistic identity and fails to confront them in a way that feels rewarding.
Whenever there's a direct confrontation of manifested terror, it quietly presents itself in beautiful wide-framed, long takes of snowy roads and seascapes, a ghostly choral soundtrack filled with cultish humming and jagged orchestral strings playing no discernible melody, paired with abstract behaviour from the lead, who stares soullessly at her own reflection and floats around apathetically as if possessed. The sense of unease created through the score and cinematography is at least pertinent, engulfing the tone of the film from the very first dialogue-free opening scene.
But atmosphere is not enough to carry a film all by itself. The minimal moments of dialogue feel stilted and unnatural, suggesting that Johnston was perhaps given a little too much to carry on her shoulders for a first-time acting role. This, paired with a narrative that doesn’t quite go to the places it could, leaves one feeling a little cheated by the time it's all over. Subtlety is a fine instrument, but played with a few broken strings, it can lead to something that feels annoyingly out of tune.
The Strings is out now on Shudder.Where to watch