Written by: C. Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson (screenplay), Joe Hill (short story)
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, and Ethan Hawke
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Wanna see a magic trick?"
Movies rarely arrive in theaters sporting the pedigree of The Black Phone. The latest from ubiquitous genre presence Blumhouse Productions, it reteams Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill with Ethan Hawke to adapt a short story from Joe Hill, meaning all of the right pieces are on the table. Putting them into place proves to be a different, more difficult story, though: even though The Black Phone feels like it should easily be the next big thing, it doesn’t quite come together. It’s a perfectly solid film with plenty of captivating ideas and ghoulish imagery—it’s just that, for whatever reason, it struggles to coalesce into either a genuinely unsettling horror movie, a riveting thrill ride, or an unnerving subversion of nostalgia. At different points, it’s all three of these, but the sum ultimately isn’t greater than the parts.
Set in the Denver suburbs in 1978, the film briefly paints an idyllic portrait of childhood: baseball games and kids playing in yards in a sprawl of Americana. A seedy underbelly lurks beneath this Rockwellian utopia, though, revealing itself in child abuse unfolding behind picket fences and a rash of child abductions that have rocked the community. Local authorities have no answers for parents, while the children speak in whispers about “The Grabber,” the boogeyman who prowls the streets in search of victims. Finney and Gwen Shaw (Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw) already face enough turmoil at home due to an alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who hasn’t been the same since his wife’s death. While Gwen is an unrepentant firebrand, Finney struggles with bullies and relies on Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), a tough friend who takes ass-kicking inspiration from Bruce Lee movies, to stand up for him. He’s a natural target for The Grabber, who shoves him into the back of his van and holds him captive in a basement. Left with nothing but his wits and a mysterious phone that can only contact the spirits of previous victims, Finney must piece together a survival plan.
There’s no doubt The Black Phone has a captivating hook; less certain, however, is the proposition of stretching that hook from a 30-page short story into a feature length film. That ultimately becomes the burden here: taking the kernel of Hill’s primal, evocative tale of child abduction and spinning it into something more substantial. It proves to be a bit of a reach, if only because the film loses its urgency whenever it strays from Finney’s quest to turn those cryptic phone calls into a viable means of escape. Even this isn’t as sharp as it could be because the conversations Finney has with the spirits are often so literal. Instead of allowing the clues to unfold like a demented game, the voices spell out exactly what the captive boy should do, undercutting any sense of discovery and producing a jagged rhythm to the film: grainy flashback footage reveals glimpses of the slain boys’ lives and abduction before their instructions lead to one foiled escape after another for Finney.
Meanwhile, Gwen has nightmares that grant supernatural insight into the previous abductions, a gift she hopes will help her find the home where Finney is being held. Considering Hill’s lineage, it’s no surprise the story sports a wrinkle that’s so reminiscent of Stephen King, who so often finds clever ways of weaving imaginative bits into an already macabre story. And while McGraw’s lively, endearing performance makes Gwen one of the film’s most memorable characters, her visions and Finney’s spectral conversations only come together in the service of an anticlimactic twist that does nothing to heighten the suspense or irony—even though there’s an obvious way to do so if the story’s big revelation unfolded just a few beats earlier. The Black Phone is consistently frustrating like that, offering glimpses of greatness that it never quite rises to, ultimately leaving you with the sensation that you’re watching a pair of interesting stories in search of a stronger connective tissue.
Taken separately, Finney’s captivity and Gwen’s search offer plenty of effective moments. Hawke particularly looms over the former, creating an offbeat, singular sense of menace from beneath an ever-changing mask. Sometimes, it covers his entire face; at others, it only covers part of it. What’s consistent is his utterly strange presence: Hawke often warps that affable, trademark lilt in his voice into an uneasy, sinister inflection, punctuating it with guttural growls. We don’t learn much about The Grabber, an approach that allows Hawke to craft the character through suggestive dialogue and odd physical tics. Childlike and utterly inhuman all at once, The Grabber’s name is certainly appropriate: there’s no denying he’s the film’s center of gravity, capable of commanding attention even when he’s slumped over in a chair, dozing off during one of Finney’s futile escape attempts.
If only the film surrounding him were as consistently compelling and not just a slapdash assembly of white-knuckle suspense, offbeat digressions, and cliché melodrama. The harrowing near-escapes capture the urgency of Hill’s short story, while those digressions (which include James Ransone dropping in to resume his oddball Sinister schtick and Gwen’s foul-mouthed conversations with Jesus) add some nice texture. However, the abusive father bit is gratuitous and cloying, made all the more so by Davies’ uneven performance. Beneath the grim horrors of The Black Phone is a mauldin sentiment that insists on unearned redemption of cruel parents and the suggestion that overcoming a traumatic situation will magically make you a cool kid. There’s sort of a YA horror novel vibe to it all by the end, which feels a bit misguided and tonally at odds with the story material.
In fact, the climactic sappiness undercuts the striking, haywire portrait of 70s nostalgia that presages the film’s mayhem. Going so far as to lift two tracks from Dazed and Confused, the era’s definitive nostalgic depiction, it acts as an insidious doppelganger of sorts. Where Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride” heralds a night of carefree revelry in Linklater’s film, it’s an ironic precursor to Derrickson’s expiration of the decade’s dark side, particularly the burgeoning Stranger Danger panic that began gripping the nation. Some of the film’s most potent moments involve the life draining out of these vivacious suburbs, where kids playing in a sun-splashed yard eventually yield to adults wielding flashlights in search of dead children.
Dusk creeps over with sinister intent, inducing a shadowy gloom, where the only source of comfort is the glow of a television set during primetime (all bets are off during late night, though, when the likes of The Tingler might force you to watch between your fingers). Derrickson’s vision of a community under siege is so potent that I wish he’d dwelled on it a bit longer because it understandably becomes more difficult once the story shifts to an insular basement. The flashbacks—which virtually recreate the aesthetic of the Sinister home movies—do what they can, but I can’t help but wonder if the film would have been more effective had it invested a little more time in capturing the paranoia and hysteria. Likewise, Finney’s friendship with Robin is so touching that it deserves at least an extra scene or two that would make some of the later developments even more resonant.
I find myself coming back to that sentiment a lot with The Black Phone, a movie that feels frustratingly close to absolute greatness. Sometimes, I think these are the toughest films to grapple with: the ones that have plenty to like but are just missing that certain something that would really put it over the top. In this case, it’s minor nitpicks here and there that nag a little too much for me to gloss over them: the tonal inconsistency, the wonky pacing, the lack of an extra gear that would make the climax utterly riveting, the belabored, cloying coda that undermines the clever punchline of Hill’s story. None of this completely sinks The Black Phone, and I’m sure I’ll give it another shot down the road. Right now, though, I’m lukewarm on a movie that I want to love. Part of that’s on me: sometimes, expectations are an unfair influence, so a movie that’s totally fine winds up feeling like a disappointment. And don’t get me wrong: The Black Phone is mostly well done, and I suspect its YA leanings might make it a sleepover classic for upcoming generations. If nothing else, it does hit that sweet spot between being genuinely disturbing and harmless, a tough but crucial niche that spawns Monster Kids. I’m beyond that now, but I do like the idea that this could be a formative experience that seals a kid’s obsession with horror movies.
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