For a very straightforward and literal title, The Black Phone is a moniker that ends up perfectly suited to the film it advertises in far more fundamental ways than it probably realises. It’s one of those titles that sounds eerie when you first hear it but then seems ridiculous when you think about it any harder (isn’t pretty much every phone currently in existence black? what’s so scary about that?), and the same is true of the film overall, everything about it screaming ‘hurriedly thought-out first draft’. Shoddy internal logic eventually sinks The Black Phone, failing to use its premise to conjure any real scares.
After parting ways with Marvel when he abandoned the Doctor Strange 2 ship, The Black Phone marks director Scott Derrickson’s return to the horror genre that made his name, and it’s clearly a personally meaningful project for him. He and co-writer C Robert Cargill are adapting the short story from Joe ‘son of Stephen King’ Hill, but the whole thing is infused with Derrickson’s own childhood memories of ‘70s suburban violence and camaraderie, which makes the first 10-15 minutes or so of worldbuilding easily the strongest segment.
We’re in 1978 Denver, and young hero Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) has a lot to worry about. His dad (played by Jeremy Davies, going very broad) is a physically abusive drunkard, his school is packed with heavy-fisted bullies, and there’s a possibly paedophilic serial killer going around abducting teen boys, including Finney’s best friend. You really get to know Finney’s world as he bounces between home and school, and the creeping dread of his inevitable kidnapping by the killer – known as The Grabber and played by Ethan Hawke – rumbles throughout.
Sadly, though, the film only gets less scary once The Grabber actually pops up, pepper-spraying Finney before chucking him into the back of his van and taking him to an isolated, sound-proofed basement, with only a black phone with a cut line for company. As it turns out, though, this otherwise useless phone can access the afterlife, and so Finney spends the rest of the film taking lessons from The Grabber’s previous victims on how to finally stop him and escape.
Though the supernatural elements provide a couple of jump scares – one is legitimately great, but the others feel very cheap – the fact that they are distinctly on Finney’s side completely robs them of any scare factor, which means the thrills have to be provided solely by The Grabber. Trouble is, we never actually see a reason to be truly scared of him – we hear about the horrible things he’s done in the past, but in practice he’s a dumb and often absent villain, leaving Finney plenty of time to perfect his escape strategy. Hawke is clearly having fun in the role, hidden behind the demonic mask that has dominated The Black Phone’s marketing (it is a very well-designed piece of evil gear, to be fair), but the character is too thinly sketched to make a frightening impression.
Derrickson and Cargill actually save the worst horrors for the people of the town, from Finney’s dad handing out a beating to Finney’s younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) to a savage fight instigated by bullies, but the attempts to draw parallels between The Grabber and ‘ordinary’ violence fall miserably flat, to the point of complete tonal confusion. Meanwhile, the subplot of the police’s hunt for Finney, aided by Gwen’s cryptic second sight (she dreams in ‘70s home-video stock), always feels like the film stalling for time, actually creating more logic holes for the story to trip over without providing any thrills in return. This is never more apparent than in the occasional appearances of The Grabber’s cokehead brother Max (James Ransone, entirely wasted), who is crashing at The Grabber’s place and working on his own theories of who The Grabber is, all while Finney is kept in the basement. It’s stupid and utterly superfluous, only paying off in a minuscule way in the generally underwhelming finale.
It might sound odd to complain about believability in a film about a magic phone, but this netherrealm landline ends up as one of the only consistent things in The Black Phone. Characters keep making the dumbest, most cliched decisions, and motivations switch on a dime (the police go from an aggressive interrogation of Gwen to faithful belief in her psychic powers in a matter of minutes), whilst the frequent homages to Stephen King himself (this could easily be a lost chapter of It) only play up The Black Phone’s inadequacies.
What just about keeps The Black Phone watchable are the two lead child performances from Thames and McGraw. Both are very impressive, believable as streetwise ‘70s kids without becoming annoying or too precocious and Thames in particular gets some great moments as we watch his fear metastasise into actionable hatred for his captor. It’s hard to be angry at The Black Phone’s many failings – partly because it just made over $20 million at the US box office, which is always nice to see for a non-franchise piece, even a cruddy one – but they’re plentiful and wearing enough that you’ll leave without really feeling anything, a death knell for any horror.