What if you’re not pulling the strings?
THE STRINGS is a formidable film. It joins a small group of movies that have achieved the feat of making a film of cosmic horror that doesn’t contain any of the usual Lovecraft mythos. For decades, this subgenre has mainly been considered difficult to film and principally the territory of H.P. Lovecraft and his set of ideas. Lovecraft has virtually been the brand name of cosmic horror for almost a century, but no more. With the quiet and placidly horrific vistas of THE STRINGS and films like The Empty Man, creators have finally taken the concept in a new and exciting direction. They have wrenched the concept of cosmic horror away from the likes of the dreamer of R’yleh.
This is the story of Catherine, a musician trying to escape a troubled relationship with a fellow band member and the band that she has clearly outgrown. She makes a break for it with the excuse that she will need to go to a remote area to work alone on new material. Clearly miserable and in desperate flight, she seeks peace in her aunt’s home. Once there, she finds she still has to deal with what remains of her old life. Slowly, a darkness starts to creep up in the periphery of her everyday life until finally, she has to reckon with a force that defies human understanding.
The film stars Teagan Johnston, a musician in her debut performance, Jenna Schaefer (Makeout Massacre) as Grace, April Aliermo, a musician and actor, as Anita, and Toby Hendy, a science YouTuber, as The Physicist. Ryan Glover (Hills Green) co-wrote, directed, edited, and was the cinematographer for the film. Krista Dzialoszynski (Pontypool) co-wrote the film. Teagan Johnston provides her own original and haunting songs and Adrian Ellis (The Scarehouse) wrote the film’s score which is filled with chilling and ethereal choirs with electronic twists and turns.
THE STRINGS is a very lonely film. One of the themes explored in the film, as a bonus, is the loneliness involved in the creation of art. The isolation that Catherine plunges herself into puts the loneliness of songwriting or most types of work, and yes, art is work, related to art in a clear, cold focus. That focus is as cold as the Canadian winter where the story takes place. The irony is that when you are creating music or film or any other kind of art that an audience will experience, at different points, you are as alone as any one human could be, with nothing but their own thoughts for company.
It is an intensely economical film. It manufactures the terror with a minimum of special effects and locations. There are no tentacled monsters in THE STRINGS, no fungi from Yuggoth. Only shadows, strange noises, and the ever-worsening feeling that someone else is pushing you towards a cliff that you cannot see. That an invisible power has plans and that you may not be able to do anything to stop it. The terror is in the bravura solitary performance of its star, Teagan Johnston, and the sounds, the shapes, the glitches and blurs, and the disconnected images that mean more with every passing moment. Ryan Glover’s direction and cinematography on what seems like a low-budget film is stunning. I believe that the film was shot using anamorphic lenses and the shots are framed wonderfully to increase tension and emphasize that sense of emptiness and an otherworldly isolation. The glitching and the blurs are used to great effect. It is particularly unsettling when the sharp foreground is not the focus of the action, but the blurry background is.
Many people talk these days about watching horror films for comfort. In THE STRINGS, Catherine watches YouTube videos about physics, in particular, she watches The Physicist talk about the true possibilities of the Multiverse and what may be out there. There is an implication that the relationship that she ghosted was a very bad one. Most of the time, Catherine bears up under the pressure, but you feel like the relationship might have been controlling and abusive. You get the feeling, from Johnston’s edgy and nuanced performance, that she didn’t want to upend her life, but she felt that she had to, to preserve her well-being and possibly her sanity.
There’s a heartbreaking moment when she bows her head and says, “Fucking stop” to an empty room. Catherine is beautiful and sexual. She’s a real person. There are very few other people in the film, which makes her isolation even more piercing, especially since most of the other people are warm and giving. Jenna Schaefer’s Grace and April Aliermo’s Anita glow with support and sympathy for Catherine, but can only momentarily lift her gloom.
There are so many intricate details in the film that contribute immensely to the whole, but one of the most subtle and effective is the use of static shots to suggest how empty our world actually is. The use of sound design is deployed to great effect. I feel the need to shout out to the sound department and visual effects department for their really fantastic work: Kevin F. Brown and Krista Dzialoszynski (Sound), Bruce Fleming (Sound Supervisor), Andy Frech (Foley Artist/Re-recording mixer), Deanna Marano (Foley Artist/Sound Editor) and Brad Tigwell (Foley Artist/Sound Editor). Helen Thach (Visual Effects Supervisor) and Matthew Pellar (Additional VFX).
It is all so precisely calculated to tell the story and illustrate the terror of the cosmic forces. The characters face what’s known as a time loop, not the screenwriting trope, but the kind in physics. Catherine’s interest in string theory and physics is connected to the forces that are causing the subtle, but disturbing occurrences. I believe that the tattoo Catherine is seen getting on her arm at the beginning of the film, in a seemingly throwaway scene, is a Penrose Diagram, specifically the part of the diagram that shows how the Universe relates to a black hole. I think it is particularly interesting since there is a theory that space-time loops explain black holes. Also, a definition of string theory would probably be helpful here: “String theory proposes that the fundamental constituents of the universe are one-dimensional “strings” rather than point-like particles. What we perceive as particles are actually vibrations in loops of string, each with its own characteristic frequency.”
I know what my interpretation is but the loveliest thing about this is that others may have different interpretations. Is there something wrong with Catherine and is this all in her imagination? Is she responsible for some of the things that happen herself? The most chilling possibility is the one I think is correct. It has to do with the cosmic forces that we are unaware of. Instead of Yog Sothoth, what if there is a greater force out there? Not a god or a devil, but a force or forces that barely notice we are there until one of them decides to mess with us for a reason that we may never understand? The static shots show that no matter how much we create, other humans and structures and belongings, human beings could never fill up even the one world that we exist in. They show that there is so much room for malign or even indifferent and bored forces in the Multiverse to reach into our world for their own purposes. The Multiverse is so much more than we could ever explore or understand.
This most chilling idea is that the film shows how small humanity, our world, everything we’ve ever created, our galaxy, and even our universe truly are. It suggests the soul annihilating idea that perhaps all that we are and our universe itself might just be a mote of dust dancing on a pin amid millions of others. That is truly cosmic terror. It does this by telling the story of one woman alone in a snowy countryside and does so with a truly daring subtlety.
The film takes what would normally be considered a supernatural horror story and gives it a foundation based on physics and science. In a way, it proposes that the supernatural is actually scientific in origin and is a more logical and thus more terrifying basis for cosmic horror. It’s not a space squid. It’s an intelligence or force that’s beyond our comprehension. One that could be smaller or larger than we ever imagined and one that could reach out and grab us anytime it pleases.
One thought that it brought up in my mind is about where inspiration and creativity come from. We take it for granted and have for centuries considered people divinely inspired. What if it’s THE STRINGS?
THE STRINGS is now available for viewing on Shudder.
- [SXSW Review] THE WRATH OF BECKY - May 26, 2023
- [Movie Review] RENFIELD - April 13, 2023
- [SXSW Review] HAIL MARY - April 3, 2023