“Say it,” insists Dena (Chelsea Edmundson) in Brian Hanson’s feature debut The Black String. “Say, ‘I want this to happen.'”
As she utters these words, Dena is straddling Jonathan (Frankie Muniz) on his sofa, and starting to undress, yet Jonathan seems conflicted. On the one hand, he initiated contact with Dena through one of those singles hot lines you see advertised on late-night television – but on the other hand, he had earlier rejected the advice of his friend/manager Eric (Blake Webb) to take condoms to his first date, on the grounds that he was intending to have a fun night out, but not sex. So there he is, on the couch, torn between conflicting drives and desires, and anxious about what unprotected sex with a “phone skank” might bring – and yet this innocent (and, we know that he is at least kind-of innocent, because he is played by the actor most famous for being Malcolm in TV’s Malcolm In The Middle) gives into the temptation of Dena’s bewitching charms. He will wake up the next morning with a terrible rash, and with a strong sense that he is now being subjected to “sudden bad luck, illness, addiction, heartache, or feeling persistent evil.”
Though expressed in erotic terms, Jonathan’s dilemma will be oddly familiar to any viewer of horror. After all, there we are, rooted in our seats, wanting the terrifying experience through which the film takes us both to stop, and to continue to its sweetly bitter end. We are consenting adults, but not entirely sure to what we have consented – and by the time we know, the damage is already done. The Black String itself confounds the erotic and the frightening. For in the tradition of David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), Éric Falardeau’s Thanatomorphose (2012), Eric England’s Contracted (2013), David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) and Jonathan Straiton’s Night of Something Strange (2016), this is, at least at first, a ‘venereal horror’, playing on anxieties about sex’s ickiness and potential for contagion.
It is also set in Los Angeles, the city of dreams, and focuses on ex-addict Jonathan’s broken ones. He doodles constantly, and if his subject is mostly tits and ass, he nonetheless clearly has artistic aspirations to match his sexual ones. Yet he lives in a run-down apartment (with half the rent paid by his parents), and has a dead-end job in a liquor store (even if he tries to convince his parents, absurdly, that it is “a lifestyle convenience boutique”). He cannot afford his own car insurance, and over the course of the film will be reduced to squatting and public begging. So when Jonathan swaps the self-help book (The Life In You) that his parents have given him for the occult manual (Spiritual Defense Safety Kit – Level 3) that he picks up from psychic Ms. Melinda (Mary K. Devault), he is clearly working through issues of personal growth and the psyche, and struggling to find a rationalising narrative for it – no matter whether what eventually happens to him is the result of a sinister coven’s conspiracy or his own mental breakdown.
That ambiguity is deeply implanted in The Black String, sending its dark roots through the body of the film. For what starts as a comic character study of a young, disaffected loser quickly turns into a more sombre and sinister reading of his entrails. In denial of what he wants and in fugue from what he fears about himself, Jonathan will come apart at the seams. The film does too (in a good way), offering an alternative, parallel frame for Jonathan’s marginalisation and mania via the language of genre. Here, not unlike in Chelsea Stardust’s Satanic Panic (2019), there is a suggestion that the neglected, downtrodden and overlooked from the proletariat – the people who are not America’s alphas or élites – serve as easy prey for organised, exploitative black magicians who feed off their naïveté. From these diabolical seeds, a social allegory grows.
© Anton Bitel