The Black Phone Doesn’t Quite Add Up
The Black Phone Review
The Black Phone, the new horror thriller directed by Scott Derrickson, fits in with the Stranger Things/IT trend in recent years of young teenagers in the late ’70s/early ’80s, potentially falling prey to evil. In this case, it’s 1979 Denver, where a suburban-style neighborhood is being terrorized by an abductor/possible serial killer called the Grabber (played by Ethan Hawke.)
Derrickson wrote the first Doctor Strange movie but departed the sequel early on; this is his follow-up, which he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator, the old Ain’t It Cool News hand C. Robert Cargill. This represents a return to the sort of creepy stuff that the director did earlier in his career, like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The Blumhouse-produced film is based on a short story by Joe Hill, who happens to be Stephen King’s son, and it certainly has a vibe similar to many of the King screen adaptations.
The Black Phone has a few things going for it, including an appealing 1970s atmosphere, two strong performances from the two main kid actors, and Hawke getting to do something a bit different. But that can’t overcome some plot machinations that don’t quite add up, as well as other elements that aren’t quite developed.
The first half-hour is actually the best part of the film, as it introduces what feels like a real, lived-in town. We’re introduced to Finney (Mason Thames) a young Little Leaguer, and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who has the ability to see psychic visions in her dreams. They live with their abusive, drunken dad (Jeremy Davies), following the suicide death of their mother, who also had those visions.
The town is being stalked by The Grabber, played by Hawke with a creepy mask that he often wears the top half of and not the bottom, and vice versa. He quickly gets his hands on Finney, tossing him into a basement dungeon consisting of little but one window, a couple of side rooms, and the titular phone, which is supposedly out of order but rings anyway.
Making the calls are the previous victims of the Grabber, and we’re meant to question, at least at first, whether they’re ghosts, or merely calling from other locations with escape advice. Meanwhile, his sister tries to use her powers to free her brother.
This setup has quite a few weaknesses to it. We never really learn what the Grabber’s motivation is- is he a pedophile? A fetishist? Something else? Nor are the rules of the film’s supernatural elements ever really laid out. Why is the phone in the Grabber’s basement, and why doesn’t he know about its magical properties?
The ending is certainly satisfying, if predictable, although the film tosses in a small, amusing supporting performance from The Wire veteran James Ransone as a coke-addled true-crime obsessive.
There’s also the law enforcement angle, which in fact, was probably the thing about the film I found most amusing, even if it wasn’t entirely intentional.
The town in this movie has had a half-dozen kids disappear within a couple of years. Not only does this not draw much media attention, but the entire case is being investigated by… just two cops, without the benefit of backup or an FBI squad. A pair of officers who come across as so utterly inept that they have absolutely no leads and are reduced to hitting up a little girl who has psychic powers. And then, at the end, when the case is solved, it’s these two cops who step up authoritatively to the microphone, shades of the Uvalde aftermath.
That, I thought, made a point better than anything else in The Black Phone, even if the filmmakers didn’t mean it to.