I haven’t read the Joe Hill short story that The Black Phone is based on, but watching the movie, it’s not hard to imagine what the source material must be like. In some ways, Scott Derrickson’s film still feels like a short story. It’s all setup and resolution, with little of the incident and complication that usually helps a feature-length movie come fully to life. In industry parlance, it feels like it’s missing a second act. But thanks to a host of excellent performances (and a few generic but effective scares), most viewers may not mind.
The film takes place in the year 1974; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is in theaters, bandannas are in fashion, and the kung-fu craze is in full swing. In the suburbs of north Denver, however, a mysterious figure known as the Grabber is kidnapping teenage boys off the street. These disappearances have understandably invaded the fearful waking thoughts of local teen Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), even though he also has more immediate concerns on his mind — namely, a trio of savage bullies at school and an abusive father (Jeremy Davies, sporting an impressive pompadour and beard combo).
The deeply unstable Mr. Shaw terrorizes both the shy Finn and his headstrong little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), but there is more to this family than meets the eye. Gwen is having dreams that feature specific details about the Grabber’s crimes that have not yet been made public, and the kids’ late mother apparently also had such premonitions and visions. Their alcoholic father is terrified at what might happen if his kids follow in the path of their mom, who we learn killed herself thanks to the voices and visions in her head. When Finn himself gets kidnapped, Gwen swings into action, desperately probing her dreams and breaking out a gauntlet of religious items (like some of Derrickson’s other films, The Black Phone has its share of Christian imagery) for clues to her beloved brother’s whereabouts.
Finn has been imprisoned in a large, dark basement by a masked, reedy-voiced psycho (Ethan Hawke, impressively unsettling in a role that almost never lets us see his whole face). The Grabber insists he will not hurt the child, but we know that he intends to do exactly that. Much of the film involves watching Finn scrape around this basement, and it’s to the 14-year-old Thames’s credit that his character’s predicament never feels repetitive or overtly downbeat. He brings a welcome mix of intelligence, bewilderment, and fear to the part — a complexity rare in young actors.
The Grabber’s basement is empty, save for a black phone that we’re told doesn’t work. Of course, as soon as the captor goes back upstairs, the phone rings. (The movie is, after all, called The Black Phone.) And yes, there is a voice on the other end of the line …
If you don’t want to know anything more about The Black Phone, you should probably stop reading at this point, although some of the following happens early enough that it feels more like part of the setup than an actual plot reveal. Either way, it’s hard to discuss the picture’s key weaknesses and strengths without addressing where it goes. Anyway, spoilers follow.
… The voices on the phone belong to the boys the Grabber has already killed. Finn can presumably hear them because his family is touched by a divine power. The boys are calling from some sort of afterlife, and even though their memories are slowly drifting away, they are able to guide Finn through his predicament — some of it via specific bits of advice, some of it via gnomic, Signs-like clues. Derrickson also uses these phone conversations to stage a number of jump scares which feel somewhat tacked on. These jolts are Finn’s own visions, it seems, but they’re never quite explained within the logic of this world — almost as if the filmmakers came up with them after realizing that mere phone conversations with ghosts wouldn’t provide the requisite genre thrills.
The movie is confused in conception, which is a shame because there’s potential here. The premise is genuinely creepy, and the conceit of phone calls from the afterlife is rife with possibility. When the dead boys first begin to speak, we get a couple of touching flashbacks to their lives, and it feels like the picture might be headed in a more emotional direction. That’s not the only promising idea that’s abandoned. The always-interesting James Ransone shows up as a weird, coked-up amateur sleuth who looks like he’s about to take the movie in a whole other direction — but his presence, sadly, is relatively short-lived and pointless, not quite enough to even count as a red herring. In most other horror movies, this might be a minor narrative nuisance, but The Black Phone at times feels so undernourished dramatically that these dropped subplots feel like missed opportunities.
Even Gwen’s search for Finn, to which the film cuts at opportune moments, is never as filled out as we might like. What makes it work, however, is 13-year-old McGraw’s electrifying performance as the little girl. It would have been easy to play this precocious, strong-willed child as a cutesy, foul-mouthed kid detective, but her concern for her brother shines through. Whenever Gwen is onscreen, the film locks into its more emotional register: We feel her anguish, her growing sense of helplessness.
So much so that the film loses some of its power whenever it cuts away from her. But it has to cut away, because Finn’s dramatic thread is where we get all the jump scares and the creepy imagery and the predictable escape-room theatrics. This tension between the sister’s narrative and the brother’s seems indicative of the rift at the heart of this picture. All throughout, The Black Phone feels like it’s trying to reconcile typical horror elements with the more expressive and tender story Derrickson clearly wants to tell. The reconciliation never really comes, but the cast gets us there anyway.
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