So, you’ll understand if I admit that I approached Muniz’s starring role in first-time Director and Co-Screenwriter Brian Hanson’s, THE BLACK STRING with some apprehension. Little Malcolm Wikerson in a horror movie? Really? Well, yes!
Muniz is both believable and engaging in the role of Jonathan. The film jumps right in and we meet him on the run, literally – racing through the street. But is he running away from something or towards something? It’s the latter. He’s late for work and in the next moment we see him stacking shelves in a crummy liquor-cum- convenience store in a nondescript Los Angeles suburb where his boss (and best friend) is the motor-mouthed, self-promoting Eric (Blake Wood) or as he likes to refer to himself, (generally in the third person) The ERC.
Right away, there’s an unsettled sense to Jonathan. He’s nervy and lacking in self-confidence, whilst willing to be ‘pumped up’ by the ERC. At home, he avoids phone messages from his mother and instead slumps on the couch with his sketch pad and tunes into some bad TV while he draws hyper real and over-sexualised comic characters, until one of those ‘call me, call me now’ ads comes onto the screen. Did he hear that right? Did the scantily clad woman in the ad call him by name? Surely he dreamt that. Nevertheless, he calls the number and the next thing we know, he’s on a date with Dena (Chelsea Edmundson) in a low-rent Diner (where the N and the R in its Neon sign have faded out so it says DIE – should we be worried? Yes!). Back at Jonathan’s apartment, the inevitable happens (not surprising, since we assume he’s paid for it) but when he wakes the next morning, Dena is gone and a nasty little pustule has appeared on his stomach with spiderwebbing tendrils spreading beneath his skin. He’s infected with the black string.
At this point, it would be easy for a film like this to follow a well-worn path as our unwitting victim tries desperately to work out what this infection is and how he can get rid of it. To a certain extent, that is what happens, but there’s another question that becomes important to this story – why is he infected? The answer to that question isn’t as simple as reaching the conclusion that this is a knock-off of the 2014 sexually-transmitted horror movie, It Follows. There are some echoes of that movie, for sure, but there’s something else really interesting going on here.
There are two possible explanations for why this is happening to Jonathan. I don’t want to give anything away here, suffice it to say that one explanation (the more straightforward one) is to do with the occult and sees Jonathan trying to track down Dena which leads him to a house where he encounters an odd little group including a strange man in a black hat (Cullen Douglas). What he discovers here prompts him to seek help from Melinda (Mary K DeVault) a kooky medium in a crystal and spells shop who provides Jonathan with a bit of archaic information about the black string and a way of ridding himself of it. But what elevates this movie from the run- of-the-mill is the second possibility. Again, no spoilers, but that unsettling sense we had about Jonathan at the start of the movie suddenly seems to be no accident, plus we now see there’s a reason that he’s been avoiding calls from his family. There’s something dark and quite possibly violent in Jonathan’s past and he might just be a tad unstable. Is it possible that the black string only exists in his mind?
It’s around this point that some of what seemed like odd editing and storytelling choices – disjointed exposition, unexplained moments, the unexpected lapses in the narrative that make it feel like bits might have been cut out or that it’s a haphazardly assembled movie - suddenly feel like they might actually be quite clever cinematic devices.
This isn’t to suggest that the film is without its faults or that it’s going to find its way into my top ten, but it is remarkably better than the average, low budget, direct-to-DVD fare. It has original characters, very good performances and resists the temptation to provide easy explanations or overly didactic exposition. In fact, one of things I really like about this movie (something that quite possibly will irritate many filmgoers) is that there’s little more than a hint at Jonathan’s dark past – we never actually find out what he did. We just know it was bad.
All this inexorably leads to some nicely gory body trauma and a very icky scene where the black string finally appears. There’s some good moments of tension and the frustration Jonathan feels at having his claims about Dena and the Man in the Black Hat and the black string called into question is palpable and carries the film through to a very satisfying ending. It’s a shame, then, that any ambiguity in that twisty final scene is pretty much undercut in a predictable and (in my view) unnecessary post credit coda. This last minute capitulation to more derivative storytelling aside, The Black String distinguishes itself as an above average horror/thriller and gives Frankie Muniz the opportunity to show us that he’s more than just Malcolm and that he still has some fairly decent acting chops.