Known for his starring roles in Malcolm in the Middle, Agent Cody Banks, and Big Fat Liar, Frankie Muniz has returned to the big screen for Brian Hanson’s gripping directorial debut, The Black String. In this psychological horror, Muniz is Jonathan — a suburban slacker working at a local convenience store, who soon finds himself mixed up in an evil occult conspiracy.
One night, Jonathan feels compelled to call a singles hotline, which leads him to meet the mysterious and alluring Dena (Chelsea Edmundson). After their one-night stand leaves Jonathan with a nasty rash similar to an STD, he sets out to find Dena, only to be met with suspicious people at her address claiming not to know her. Plagued by paranoia, nightmarish visions and a pulsating rash that won’t go away, Jonathan is certain that something more sinister is going on — believing himself to be cursed.
When Jonathan accidentally attacks Eric (Blake Webb), his shift manager and best friend, his family become increasingly concerned about his erratic behavior and begin to question his mental stability. With suggestions that Jonathan has suffered from this before — possibly in the form of drug addiction — he’s committed to a psych ward before being released into his parents’ care. “How is living with my parents supposed to help with stress?” Jonathan exclaims.
Eventually escaping from his parents’ custody, Jonathan heads out to track down Dena and find out the truth once and for all. He meets with Melinda (Mary K. DeVault), a psychic familiar with the black string. She gives him a self-help book titled ‘Spiritual Defense Safety Kit – Level 3’ and tells him to dig it out with a knife and not to stop until it’s all out. Not much is known about the black string, but it’s a unique idea — a black, gooey string that lives under the skin that spreads like an infection. “Evil is skin deep” is the film’s tagline, which can seemingly refer to both real and inner demons.
Is Jonathan mentally disturbed or is something supernatural really happening to him? This is a question that we’re asked throughout the film. We see things from both sides as Jonathan, our unreliable narrator, tries to unravel the mystery surrounding him. It’s always tricky to tackle the “Is this all in his head?” narrative, but Hanson and co-writer Richard Handley get the balancing act just right. The film never gives us a solid answer as it suggests that both possibilities are tangible. You’ll find yourself questioning both sides throughout — which is part of the film’s captivating experience.
When looking at The Black String‘s genre, body horror comes to mind immediately — venereal horror, to be specific. Think It Follows, Contracted and Cronenberg’s Shivers. There are many moments of genuine horror and discomfort throughout the film which comment on witchcraft and the supernatural. There are also strong themes of mental illness and addiction, but The Black String doesn’t blur the lines offensively. Instead, it’s an intriguing mystery that unfolds on-screen masterfully. Muniz has a talent for evoking his wired and polite energy into every role he has, while still making it unique to every character he plays on the screen. It’s a true gift that absolutely shines during his performance as Jonathan.
At its surface, The Black String is an exploration of Lovecraftian horror accompanied by themes pertaining to family, drug addiction, mental illness and more. As Hanson and Handley are both US military veterans who met while during a film course, the film could also serve as an allegory for suffering from PTSD. Ultimately, The Black String is dark, bleak and absolutely full of horror. It’s a truly great debut feature from its creators and from Muniz whose unwavering talent will surprise its audience.