Forty years before the pandemic, The Shining provided every artist the ultimate nightmare of creative solitude: pages and pages, hours and hours, of bullshit.
All work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy, and I can think of no better phrase to summarize the year 2021. Many people have been forced to work since the pandemic began, but last year just about all of us were expected to work like we used to. Even as variants increased deaths, and many of us had limited social lives, the capitalist urge for productivity flourished.
Comparing any year’s cinema to its moment in time is a foolish task. First of all, no one has seen every movie — even within a niche like, say, queer horror. Second of all, every movie in a year is not actually from that year. Movies are rarely written, shot, edited, and released in a matter of months. It’s usually a matter of years, sometimes a matter of decades. Watching movies is easy. Making movies — releasing movies — is hard. That is to say, most of what was released last year was shot before the pandemic began.
Looking at themes of isolation in horror movies from 2021 is about as relevant as rewatching The Shining and saying, mood. But you know what? I love experiencing old art and saying, mood. I love when art, past or present, resonates — even when that resonance is deeper than the filmmakers ever could have predicted.
The truth is, the queer horror films of last year were as varied as our community. We had a Palme d’or winner about a genderbending dancer then fireman who fucks a car. We had a sprawling trilogy of retro slashers about the generational trauma held in our families and our land. We had homophobic killers, overly pious hospice nurses, a lesbian too obsessed with her dog, and a cabin in the woods thriller where the cabin was the Queen of England’s Sandringham estate.
If I was raised Catholic, maybe you’d be getting an essay on Saint Maud. If I was raised British, maybe you’d be getting one on Spencer. Instead I’m an artist in a pandemic, thinking about last year when I was an artist in a pandemic. I’m a critic with a deadline, who just published my 300th article for this website I still call my day job. I’m a screenwriter on my second round of development with what would be my first feature. I’m a director who hasn’t felt the warmth of being on my own set surrounded by people in far too many years.
And that’s why, in looking back at the horror cinema of last year, I’m declaring 2021 the Year of Queer Indie Musicians Creating in Solitude and Losing Their Minds.
For me, anyway.
Bloodthirsty is a paint-by-numbers cabin in the woods romp that stands out by choosing totally original paints for totally original numbers. The Strings is a slow-burn arthouse film that feels as if Chantal Akerman made a horror movie. Bloodthirsty is about an artist on the rise; The Strings is about an artist at a roadblock.
But, yes, both films are about queer indie musicians and, more importantly, both films are about a contemporary form of creation. They may pre-date the pandemic, but they don’t pre-date modern music production. Songwriting could always be a solitary act; practicing an instrument could be solitary too. This level of production, less so. That’s technology. It’s a gift — a gift with limits.
Catherine, the protagonist of The Strings (played by Teagan Johnston who also wrote the film’s music) creates all alone. She gets a post-breakup tattoo, loads some equipment in the back of her van, and drives off to a cottage. It’s winter, and the ground is covered in snow, the air thick with ice.
She spends her days walking around outside, walking around the cottage, watching videos about quantum physics, and, occasionally, working on music. It takes her an entire day to set up the perfect makeshift studio in the living room. All that just to record the word “fuckwp_postsand put it on loop.
As the days pass, she manages to loop slightly more, and the possibilities of the technology are made clear. Even while feeling stuck, her solitary creativity is plentiful. Movies about musicians don’t work when the music isn’t good — Johnston’s music is good. Even when they’re performing writer’s block.
Catherine’s solitude is broken by a different type of creative collaboration. She models for Grace (Jenna Schaefer), a photographer — and crush — who lives nearby. During these scenes, Glover’s camera sees Johnston the way Grace sees her subject. The bleakness is interrupted by beauty, the loneliness by artistic symbiosis. After this photoshoot, Catherine’s music is briefly liberated.
It’s revealed that Catherine isn’t just going through a romantic breakup — she’s going through a band breakup. Her ex, Derek, was also her musical partner, and now she’s attempting to create on her own. She says she doesn’t care what fans, bookers, journalists think of that — but it’s clear the wounds continue to pulse.
The escape Grace provides is fleeting. That’s in part due to what Grace represents. Catherine is taking a week-long retreat at her aunt’s cabin, creating on her own because she’s all she has left. Grace has made different choices. Grace has had to make different choices. She says she’d move back to Toronto but it’s just too expensive. Instead, she’s stuck back in her hometown, at the day job she had in high school, only getting the chance for collaboration and companionship when a hot queer happens to visit.
After Catherine shares her nightmares/hallucinations/hauntings, Grace notes that it feels like seeing the strings being pulled in our world. Catherine brings up physics, but she just as easily could have brought up the industry she’s trying to emotionally survive. It’s harder to create in solitude when the specter of your eventual collaborators — distributors, journalists, fans — hangs over the work itself.
Catherine needs to escape her isolation. It’s the only way forward.
Grace will not end up so lucky.
After the success of her first album, Grey has sought out established music producer Vaughn (Greg Byrk). He was once accused of murder, but Grey doesn’t care. If he’s the best producer, the most connected producer, she can handle some murder accusations. Her girlfriend Charlie (Katharine King So) is less convinced.
Grey has been having hallucinations that she’s turning into a werewolf. Or, at least, she assumes they’re hallucinations. She’s medicated, and that seems to keep them under control. She’s not violent, she’s not bloodthirsty, she’s upset enough when she accidentally runs over a bunny on the way to Vaughn’s secluded house and studio.
This space isn’t your usual cabin in the woods. It’s more like a rich producer’s mansion with the energy of a gothic castle. What it lacks in gargoyles, it makes up for in the intensity brought by Vaughn’s housekeeper Vera. And Vaughn himself.
He pushes Grey, in the studio and beyond. He chastises her for merely being good. He makes her run outside in the snow to loosen her up. He encourages her to go off her meds.
As Grey starts to transform under the pressure, Charlie grows concerned. Grey insists Charlie just couldn’t understand. Charlie may also be an artist — a painter — but she lacks Grey’s ambition. It’s easy to create in solitude when you’re creating for yourself. The stakes are lower if you’re content not to be the best.
This film’s songs are written by Lowell, who also co-wrote the script. It’s clear this is a personal work about the monstrosity of being an ambitious artist, the sacrifices you’re forced to make along the way. The reveal that Vaughn experiences the same werewolf tendencies couldn’t be clearer. As the cliché goes, we aren’t so different you and I, and Grey is confronted with the fact that she may have more in common with this violent man than her sweet girlfriend.
Once again, capitalism and sexism haunt this story. Queer women artists are often forced to collaborate with powerful men they would rather avoid. Creating alone at a cottage is isolating. Creating at a giant house with a man you don’t trust and a girlfriend who doesn’t understand is isolating. Creating at a major studio in a major city surrounded by people can be isolating too — depending on the circumstances. Depending on the people.
All genders can be violent and abusive, all genders can embrace the patriarchy of the entertainment industries. Ultimately, that is the real terror. Grey ends up more scared of herself than of Vaughn.
Bloodthirsty and The Strings both end with their protagonists performing. They’ve left behind another queer woman artist who lacked their will. They’ve embraced the violence of the music industry.
But Grey performs solo and Catherine does not. Catherine hasn’t continued her literal solitude, she’s replaced Derek with another woman to perform with. Grey hasn’t just left her girlfriend behind, she’s left Vaughn as well. Maybe Catherine and Grey are finding a new way to exist in the industry, separate from these men they don’t want to imitate. Or maybe they’re repeating the same behaviors alone, a patriarchy with no patriarchs.
“Just go out and make something!wp_postshas long been a rallying cry to young filmmakers who feel alienated from an incestuous industry. It’s true that we can make movies on our phones and our computers for no money. As queer people, we often have no choice. But it’s disingenuous to pretend that this is a solution rather than a compromise. There are limits to what one can do on your own, with no money, without connections.
Horror has long been the solution.
Whether it’s Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur, and DeWitt Bodeen collaborating in the 1940s on low-budget queer horror, Francis Ford Coppola getting his start making Dementia 13 for Roger Corman, or The Blair Witch Project becoming a phenomenon, horror has always been the most democratized genre.
With the right amount of creativity, you can do a lot with a little when it comes to horror. That’s evident in The Strings, in Bloodthirsty, and in so many movies made each year.
The pandemic has only made our industries more challenging. Everything is more expensive, there are fewer opportunities, and those with power are attempting to keep the pandemic-era habits that benefit them while removing the rest. We are also collectively grieving.
It is not an easy time to be an artist, but it’s rarely an easy time to be an artist. It wasn’t when The Strings and Bloodthirsty were shot, and it wasn’t when they were released. Those of us who need to create, who have ambitions in industries who hate us, who keep going when success is rare, do so because we have no other choice. We defy the demons. We embrace our monsters.
People who don’t watch horror often ask why for some of us feeling bad feels so good. The obvious answer is catharsis. It’s comforting to see our fears contained in the safety of fiction.
But with these two films, I have another answer. It’s hope. No matter what happens to Catherine and Grey, their stories were captured — with little money and lots of creativity — by real-life Catherines and Greys.
Last year may have been the Year of Queer Indie Musicians Creating in Solitude and Losing Their Minds, but this year I finally took their greatest lesson. I’m taking a break from writing splashy romcoms, a break from writing complicated dramas. I’m working on a trans woman slasher movie that I could make with no one’s permission but my own — and queer collaborators of my choosing.
Let’s defy the demons. Let’s embrace our monsters. It might just be our only choice.
Slow Takes is a series of “belatedwp_postsreviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover. This special iteration of Slow Takes is part of Horror Is So Gay, a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.