★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
More witches! Or are they? At least we can watch Agent Cody Banks go slowly insane.
Directed by Brian Hanson.
The latter half of our current decade is seeing a resurgence of great witchcraft movies and I’m loving it. The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), Pyewacket (2017), The Wretched (2019)… and now first time writer/director Brian Hanson adds to the list with his witchcrafty body-horror bonanza, The Black String (2019).
Frankie Muniz [Agent Cody Banks (2003), TV’s Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006)] is our eyes and ears in this film as Jonathan Marsh, a down on his luck 20-something who just can’t seem to catch a break. Spending his days as a clerk at a local liquor store — sorry, “Lifestyle Convenience Boutique” — Jonathan yearns for a better life which has yet to materialize.
Working alongside his best friend and liquor store shift manager, Eric “The ERC” [Blake Webb; TV’s 13 Reasons Why (2019)], Jonathan does his best to follow the life-improving advice he’s given by his more socially adept friend. And what’s that get him? Infected with some kinda oozing witch curse, that’s what.
Playing a key role in all of this is singles’ hotline girl, Dena [Chelsea Edmundson; 14 Cameras (2018)]. After a late night lapse in judgement has Jonathan calling a 1-900-number dating service, Dena is who they set him up with. Admittedly, the blind date goes surprisingly well until young Mr. Marsh forgets the first rule of Safe Sex and wakes up the next morning to an empty bed and a nasty-looking rash.
Unfortunately for Jonathan, it’s all a purulent parade of brain bending horribleness from there.
The Black String was co-written by Brian Hanson and Richard Handley (who also plays Jonathan’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jason Ronaldi) and the duo came up with a great script. The storyline is tight and, best of all, Jonathan makes all the right decisions for the most part. He doesn’t shy away from asking his friend for help, he actively seeks medical assistance, and so on. Sure, things get a bit frantic at times, but we can forgive him some less than ideal reactions. He’s having a rough week, after all.
The story attempts to ride the fine line between fantasy and reality and mostly succeeds. By filtering the audience’s viewpoint through Jonathan’s fracturing psyche the filmmakers blur the boundary; is this scene really happening or is it all in his head? They do a decent job with this most of the time, but some of it’s a bit heavy handed and pulls you out of the narrative here and there.
However, if you have any doubts that Frankie Muniz could tackle the role of a man being pushed farther and farther over the edge of sanity, you can safely put them to rest. Not only does Muniz tackle the role, he pins it to the ground and holds it there for the duration of the film. Running the range from awkward sensitivity to spittle-flying rabid paranoia, his performance in The Black String has marked him as a genre star to watch in my book.
The special effects in this film, while few and far between (if you don’t count Jonathan’s ever-present skin condition), are very well done. From the looks of them, the majority are all practical effects including the eponymous Black String which our main character tries to remove in one particularly not-for-the-squeamish, scab-picking scene.
The witchcraft aspect, while very entertaining, plays as more of a backdrop than an active participant in the movie. We do find out the name of the coven and that they’re keen on opening portals of some kind, but most of that takes a backseat to Jonathan’s crumbling sanity and his struggle to get someone, anyone to believe him.
The Black String can be viewed as an allegory of how a single event in someone’s past could plant a dark seed that, if left to fester, can grow into an overwhelming force of negativity. Be it PTSD or, in Jonathan’s case, that “one bad day in high school” which goes unexplained in the film.
Or, The Black String can be seen as a high-energy dive into body horror and madness sprinkled with tasty witchcraftiness for added flavor.
Whatever gets your butt in the theater seat because it’s definitely worth a viewing.
You can catch The Black String on Friday the 13th of September at this year’s FilmQuest Film Festival in Provo, Utah!
Review by Robert Zilbauer.