Following stellar early reviews from festival screenings, Scott Derrickson’s latest horror The Black Phone was pushed from what was probably going to be a quiet January opening to a killer summer release slot backed by a huge marketing campaign – for a time, it was hard to go anywhere without seeing the Grabber’s sinister smiling mask watching you. But does the film meet the enormous expectations and hype?
Denver, 1978. A serial child abductor prowls the streets. Siblings – quiet, bullied Finney (Mason Thames) and seemingly omniscient dreamer Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live under the belt of their cliché abusive alcoholic father (a mumbling Jeremy Davies). When Finney is taken by the deranged Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and kept in a soundproofed basement, his only company becomes a mysterious, disconnected black phone that allows him to speak with the Grabber’s previous victims who all offer their insight into the killer’s weaknesses.
Based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), The Black Phone often meanders and struggles to adapt the very short tale into 102 mins. There is a lot of filler here that often distracts from the film’s ratcheting tension, which is all but non-existent by the film’s conclusion. It becomes something of a tiresome slog as we sit through call after call on the titular device when the short story offered but one brief conversation with the dead. The police investigation outside of the basement is bizarre and undeveloped, with the detectives blindly following Gwen’s supernatural visions, seemingly instead of doing any actual police work. Another character from the short story, Max (played here by It: Chapter Two’s James Ransone) is handled really badly, with what could have been an effective twist delegated to unceremonious throwaway dialogue. There are so many choices throughout that just feel bizarre – there’s a great film in here, but at almost every step of the way, the filmmakers go in the wrong direction.
The always reliable Ethan Hawke deserves all the praise he has been getting for his disturbing performance as the Grabber – although he isn’t given a great deal to work with. His character is given no backstory or motivation, and while that can be all the more chilling in a horror character, here it just feels like an oversight. He often doesn’t feel like a pure evil threat, and – spoiler alert, but not really – his defeat in the film’s climax doesn’t really feel all that difficult. The character’s look is certainly one of the most memorable of contemporary horror villains, it’s just a shame that the great Hawke is given so little to sink his teeth into.
The film belongs to Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, though, who deliver two of the finest child performances of recent memory. The pair steal the show and are almost certainly going to both become very familiar faces in Hollywood. A scene in which Gwen starts a prayer with “Dear Jesus…what the fuck?” is sure to become iconic.
The film looks and sounds incredible, evoking memories of chilling 1970s horror through its costume design and soundtrack. The cinematography is excellent and makes a character of the dark, almost bare basement. There is a lot to like here. It’s just a shame that the film is such a slog. It feels very caught up in the trappings of its’ short story source, desperately trying to pad out a runtime when it could’ve far more effectively been short-form horror in an anthology TV series or something. If Bilbo Baggins was a film critic, he may very well say The Black Phone is like butter scraped over too much bread.
The Black Phone is disappointing, squandering its impeccable performances and creepy premise on an overlong, drawn-out affair that becomes increasingly less scary as it goes on.