It’d be hard to think of a more unappealing title than The Black String – but that’s apt for the subject matter. It’s literalised as icky, spiky, inky stuff is pulled out of an infected rash on the protagonist’s arm, but the film is all about a thread of rot that runs through his entire life. ‘One bad day in high school doesn’t mean you can throw it in my face for the rest of my life,’ whines Jonathan Marsh (Frankie Muniz) – referring to an incident which is never specified – only for his father (Colby French) to point out that it was a lot more than one day.
A hollow-eyed, jittery, on-edge twentysomething deadbeat, Jonathan works in a convenience store only because his more outgoing (and only) friend Eric (Blake Webb) is shift manager there. We don’t find out why he’s such a schlub, but it doesn’t matter – and things are only going to get worse for him when he tries to perk up his social life by arranging a hook-up via a singles chatline. Dena (Chelsea Edmundson), darkly glamorous but obviously cracked, more or less wrestles him into first-date sex … and he wakes up with that unsightly rash, which might be anything from galloping herpes to a witch’s curse. Every move Jonathan makes alienates more people – he beats Eric up by mistake, gets on the wrong side of cops and doctors, and is given into the care of his parents but squabbles with them over dinner and then escapes (without shoes) to pedal around town on a push-bike trying to find the now-missing Dena, who met him outside the address she gave as her home but where sinister folk claim they don’t know her.
Psychic Melinda (Mary K. DeVault) hints that he’s the subject of a demonic conspiracy, and gives him a supernatural self-help kit – one of the recurrent images of this year’s FrightFest is the circle of salt to ward off evil – he doesn’t use properly. This is an extreme hard-luck story horror movie, and Jonathan keeps running into people who take against him and do him harm – aggrieved ex-customers and care workers as often as members of a possible coven. But, in the end, he does most harm to himself – and the film risks alienating audiences by making its lead character someone who you wouldn’t want to spend time with even if he weren’t cursed. Muniz – Agent Cody Banks grown up grungy and with a Sharknado on his CV – immerses himself in the character, and hints at the squashed sensitivity – Jonathan sketches – beneath the whining self-pity and peeled-back bandages. It crossbreeds the coven curse and sinister STD brands of body-horror. Directed by Brian Hanson, who co-wrote with Richard Handley and Andy Warrener.