Updated: Jul 23, 2019
Directed by: Steven Alexander Russell
Written by: #StevenAlexanderRussell
The legendary tale of blues guitarist Robert Johnson given a ghost story makeover by filmmaker and storyteller Steven Alexander Russell.
Short film The Dark Strums weaves a gothic narrative that sees a haunted guitar travel through generations, wreaking violent havoc to the players and audiences it encounters.
Damion Rochester plays the renowned musician Robert Johnson and opens the film in a romantic scene with his sweetheart Elma (Kayland Jordan). What looks to be a picturesque courtship by a beautiful lake takes a sinister turn when RJ whips out his guitar and Elma's eyes go super, super emo. Fast forward some decades later and aspiring musician Sylvia (Olivia Griffin) is about to purchase the very same guitar from an antique dealer (Lee Schatzman). Everything seems to be fine until Sylvia whips her guitar out and plays for someone's birthday (John Coulter) and an uninvited guest appears.
Atmospheric and seductive, Russell knows the lineage of cinema well that he's tapping into. This is a short movie grounded in horror fables and scary stories, playing to the fantasy horror element of the crowd, such as fans of TV shows like Supernatural. That being said, the coalescing threads of myth, legend, and fiction are brilliantly handled, allowing The Dark Strums to feel unique even if it is literally riffing on tried and tested genre tropes.
Rochester is a compelling on screen presence, looming over certain sequences with a penchant for theatrics. Jordan takes a full swing at her character's rebellious and curious nature whilst being distinctively vulnerable. The pipes on Olivia Griffin are worth showing up for alone (especially when she rocks out at the guy's lonesome birthday party), and she also plays the turn well of a struggling artist hoping for a change of luck.
There are a couple of bum notes during the piece, such as some shaky sound in the opening scenes, as well as the quick pacing. More time was needed with Sylvia in order to make the arrival of the guitar more impactful, we needed to see her struggle more (perhaps showing the viewer the "bombed" open mic performance). That being said, other aspects of the filmmaking were impressive, such as the creative framing of a chandelier light to show a horrific event, or the demonic whispers that arose when the guitar's spirits were awakened.
Thrilling if not scary and delightfully creative, The Dark Strums may be a familiar melody to fans of episodic horror shows but the dedication to the form is noteworthy and the result is a foot-tapping treat of terror.
Watch the short film trailer below.