Like most of us at the start of 2021, Michael (Ted Evans), Danny (Colton Eschief Mastro) and Sarah (Madeleine Humphries) spent a year in COVID-19 quarantine — these three largely confined to their own apartments in Los Angeles.
They schedule a weekend getaway together at a remote cabin — cheaper in the winter, even if the only activity in the surrounding area is skiing and hiking. They arrive separately, masked and, one by one, showing off their negative COVID tests. They unmask with a mixture of relief and trepidation. The three of them were, before COVID-19, close friends. “We used to do this all the time without even thinking about it,” they marvel, which remains a pretty common comment these days. But a year is a long time for people to change. Relationships have ended. New habits have formed. They think they know each other inside and out, but maybe that isn’t the case. Soon, secrets and strange happenings collide to make this a truly unforgettable weekend — for those who survive it.
Old Strangers is written and directed by Nick Gregorio. At just an hour long, it’s a tightly wound thriller that mostly hits the mark. The cabin-in-the-woods premise really benefits from Gregorio leaning into the mixture of awkwardness and relief that came with reconnecting after the first major phase of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be waning. There are still few major movies, or even smaller ones, that make thoughtful use of the stranger-than-fiction shared reality everyone experienced so recently. It’s a different texture than the standard “friends reconnecting after college” setup. Danny, Michael and Sarah all lived through a similar awfulness, and whether that shared experience is enough to make up for what they lost during their disconnection is key to whether they can make it through the weekend.
This is a horror flick, though, so of course a strange substance is found in the woods that leads to strange visitors and eventually bodies piling up. Sarah’s dreams become more and more disturbed with visions of a cosmic terror. Unfortunately, the horror element isn’t quite as effective as the setup. Frankly, Gregorio over-explains the nature of what is happening in the woods — which, as a setting, are effective for conveying isolation and mystery. These characters, alone together, grow increasingly paranoid as the world around them shrinks. What starts as a really insightful commentary on the way separation changed how these friends connected and knew one another becomes a more straightforward style of horror story. The gore, the action and the chase-through-the-woods stuff works on a visceral level, but left me wanting as a payoff to the socially relatable setup.
Still, as an independent horror film with a coherent story and visual style that actually creates intense, engaging life-or-death sequences? Old Strangers succeeds. It never becomes more than that, and I hoped it would be. In the end, the traditional genre twists and turns made it feel more like an old friend than something new.