At Frightfest last month, while sitting outside getting some air between movies, an enthusiastic and super friendly American man with a whole heap of mini poster cards approached my friends and I. He handed us some cards and implored us to go see The Black String. Knowing that Malcolm in the Middle star Frankie Muniz was in it and being the complete brat that I am, I jokingly tried to give the card back to the poor guy and told him there was no way I would watch his film.
Considering both director Richard Handley and co-writer Brian Hanson were in attendance at the festival, it was most likely one of them who didn’t get my snarky Irish humor and probably walked away feeling a bit rubbish. The joke is on me, of course, because The Black String killed at Frightfest and, after finally getting around to watching it myself, I can attest to how well-deserved the praise was. Frankie Muniz is still hella creepy, though.
See Also: Ready or Not [Frightfest 2019 Review]
Here he’s Jonathan, a schlubby loser with bad facial hair who spends his time working at a convenience store, reading a self-help book gifted to him by his well-meaning parents, and dodging boss/bro Eric (a likeable Blake Webb) who always wants to party. One evening, while feeling a bit low, Jonathan calls the kind of sexy singles hotline that you’ll be shocked to learn still exists and sets up a date. The following night, a surprisingly normal, attractive woman named Dena (Chelsea Edmundson) shows up.
Although the atmosphere is a little off, the two end up sleeping together. The next day, Dena has vanished, leaving behind only the sketch Jonathan doodled of her and a painful-looking rash on his stomach that Eric takes to be an STD. A visit to the doctor confirms something is up, though even medical science is befuddled. Then, it spreads to Jonathan’s arm. Suddenly, he’s hearing voices and being implicated in acts of violence. His parents rally around him, but that just drives Jonathan further into the darkness.
The Black String lives or dies on the strength of Muniz’s performance. The actor, who it’s worth remembering is still only in his thirties, stepped decidedly out of the spotlight in the years since Malcolm wrapped in 2006, turning his attention to other pursuits given his newfound wealth. He broke his back at one stage and has struggled with memory loss, all of which adds up to a completely different performer to the one everyone remembers from 15 years ago.
As someone who was never a fan of the weedy, know it all Malcolm, and who thought Muniz came across as a complete douchebag on his episode of Punk’d, his performance in The Black String is revelatory. Gone is the Hollywood sheen, the jittery self consciousness. This Muniz feels like someone who’s lived a life, at times a difficult one, and whose experiences have unlocked an entirely different skill-set. He’s completely unafraid here, and that fearlessness bleeds into every corner of the movie.
The story itself is relatively simple, even somewhat reductive. There’s some business with a fortune teller, conveniently introduced reading tarot cards in the local diner (in a neat nod, the lights go out on a couple letters so the sign reads “DIE” above Jonathan’s head) though thankfully not the death card, a house where women are trapped and used for nefarious Satanic rituals (or something) and more than a few dodgy characters skulking about the place.
The Black String suggests early on that Jonathan has had issues in the past with substance abuse and mental health, which means he’s automatically disbelieved by everybody who knows him once things start to go wrong. Even we, as an audience, start to wonder whether Jonathan is really hearing voices and seeing things because of a malevolent presence, or if he’s simply losing his mind. Wisely, even in the movie’s final, shocking moments, it’s not entirely clear.
Although it isn’t exactly the scariest film, there’s enough gross out body horror and well-staged spooks to control the atmosphere. The black string moment is easily a standout, and the camera focuses in on it so we can appreciate the full effect of Muniz straining against its pull. The pulsating pustules have been done elsewhere, of course, but here another layer of grossness is added to them with some weird, oozing walls emphasizing the yuck factor.
Still, The Black String revolves around Muniz’s peerless performance. Although it might seem like a weird fit for him, the still young actor finds depth and nuance in what could’ve been a one-note slacker. Jonathan isn’t a saint by any means, acting out against his parents and running away at the first sign of difficulty, but he’s a compelling protagonist, someone who’s been coasting along for so long that he’s kind of forgotten what it means to try. Once he does, everything unravels for him.
The Black String boasts some wonderfully disgusting practical FX that make up for the gaps in logic. Its premise isn’t the strongest or most original, but Muniz’s vanity-free performance in the lead role effortlessly carries this mostly entertaining film from beginning to end. The final moments are genuinely stomach-churning and well worth the wait, but more than anything else, this suggests layers to an actor many of us wrote off a decade ago. If only Black String himself had shown up as the villain, this could’ve been an all-timer.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Brian Hanson
Writer(s): Richard Handley, Brian Hanson, Andy Warrerer
Stars: Frankie Muniz, Blake Webb, Chelsea Edmundson, Cullen Douglas
Release date: September 24, 2019 (Digital HD and DVD)
Studio/Production Company: Black String Films
Run Time: 93 minutes