Stirring mental illness into supernatural horror is a tricky thing to get right. The allure of the “is this really happening?” element is understandable but it can be so dispiritingly manipulative and exploitative when done carelessly, so: hats off to director Brian Hanson and his co-writer Richard Handley for working hard to maintain ambiguity and avoiding many of the typical pitfalls.
With that out of the way, the most immediately arresting thing about The Black String is just how good Frankie Muniz is in the lead role. He plays Jonathan, a socially awkward loner who lives alone, ignores phone calls from his parents and reads self-help books while working at a liquor store. One night, he feels oddly compelled to call a dating hotline and subsequently meets the alluring Dena (an excellent Chelsea Edmundson). But when their one night stand leaves him with a nasty rash, Jonathan is unable to track her down. He begins to believe that there is something sinister going on and that he is being targeted…
In addition to the aforementioned elements, there’s a lot going on in The Black String as the filmmakers stir in Cronenbergian STD body horror, suburban paranoia and some good old fashioned black magic rituals as Jonathan begins to spiral. But they also put the time in to make sure we care about our hero before they start chipping away at the world around him. There’s a sweet friendship between him and his boss Eric, AKA The ERC (Blake Webb) and his isolation and loneliness is portrayed in a sensitive way. His date with Dena is very well played by the two actors, who make sure you’re never quite sure what’s going in even at this early stage.
It’s hard to get into too much detail beyond that point without venturing into spoiler territory, but Hanson confidently steers the story through Jonathan’s genre-infused nightmarish spiral and the scenes in which his friends, family and doctors attempt to convince him that the help he needs won’t come from anyone called Madame Melinda. The blinding sunshine contributes to the general feeling of disorientation, and the film definitely impresses when it goes for the gut (the titular string is deeply unpleasant).
It is a little overstretched even at 90 minutes and threatens to become a little repetitive, but throughout it all there’s Muniz’s committed and truly impressive performance, playing both the mania and the exhausted heartache. This is a strong debut and we’re definitely looking forward to seeing what this team does next.
The Black String was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.