The Black Phone
Director – Scott Derrickson
Writers – Joe Hill (based on the short story 'The Black Phone' by), Scott Derrickson (screenplay by), C. Robert Cargill (screenplay by)
Stars – Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke
Adapted from Joe Hill’s short story: Hill is, like his dad, a writer that offers lots of enjoyment from horror tropes. There’s enough edge followed up with neat resolution to make the genre a safe space to exorcise anxieties: red meat with just desserts. It’s comfort food horror. Having established a Seventies context – allowing for mention of ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and use of the Scratchy Retro-Film flashback filter – ‘The Black Phone’ sets up a memorable child abductor in which Ethan Hawke’s performance finds many creepy sleazy and unnerving corners mostly through line readings as his face is obscured by The Grabber’s mask (designed by Tom Savini and co., horror fans!).
Abducted and stored in a basement that’s empty but for a disconnected black phone on the wall, young Finney (Mason Thames) finds that The Grabber will procrastinate long enough for ghosts of his other child victims to call on it with semi-vague advice on survival. Having set up the unsettling threat of The Grabber, the script has the ghosts talk with annoying allusiveness so that the runtime isn’t too short, and once the tacky ghosts appear, it becomes clear that the supernatural half is almost ‘Goosebumps’ level (the supernatural is the bond that kids have to overcome the violence of adults). And that’s fine, but there’s a lack of balance here; the slightly drained indie-vibe perhaps promises a grimness, or at something like ‘The Boy Behind the Door’, but that’s not fully the case. The unscary supernatural element is nowhere near as unsettling as the violence and brutality of the bullying or the abuse at home. It’s the same with the popular ‘It: part 2’ where a nasty homophobic attack opens proceedings and casts doubt on the fearsomeness of the fantasy threats). ‘The Black Phone’ film also seems a little coy about what The Grabber does, although there are plenty of hints at the unspeakable. The recent ‘Scary Stories to tell in the Dark’ had the balance right – nastiness for young folk, but a lightness of touch – and then there’s the more recent example ‘Summer of ‘84’ proves itself to be playing a far darker game and isn’t comfort food at all.
‘The Black Phone’ isn’t quite bolstered up so much so that you don’t note the plot holes as you are watching. Wasn’t he going to see his pal after school? But then again, the timescale is unclear overall. He’s abducted but The Grabber doesn’t come down too much and certainly doesn’t see all the digging and other attempts to escape, which you think he might since the previous captives also tried. And if we go with that, surely, he would have seen the freezer damage (again, the timescale is unclear so maybe The Grabber wasn’t due to visit the freezer)? And I am not convinced the police would come out in force based on her call. Hell, if you’re going to strip the basement, why leave a broken phone on the wall at all? All this to say that ‘The Black Phone’ is as frustrating in its plot holes as it is enjoyable in its play with tropes. Or, as George Elkind writes, “Its best moments far outstrip its worst ones, though, resulting in a work that feels at once fussily prepared and a bit undercooked, with artistic attention and running time too often feeling misspent.”
It’s a coming-of-age film where the kid gets the respect and awe his peers and of those that bullied him and he gets the girl. All he has to do to gain his masculine credentials is to abducted by a murderous sleazeball and turn his back on his natural aversion to extreme violence to survive. He’ll even get a couple of one-liners: “It’s for you!” and “Call me Finn.”
It has an agreeable indie-vibe and Derrickson seems sincere. Mostly, the film’s strength is the performances of Thames, Hawke and Medeline McGraw – the latter as Finney’s sister Gwen having an existential crisis when her supernatural visions are, like the ghosts, giving her clues that tend to abstractions. Hawke’s vocal performance and the two-part mask nicely convey a fractured psyche. Thames conveys Finney’s intelligence and fortitude even as he is sometimes paralysed in the face of violence, so that when he just becomes a conventional precocious kick-ass, it’s arguably a betrayal of a more complex character.