The Black Phone Picks Up More Static Than Scares: Review

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The Pitch: 1978, suburban Colorado – a small town is plagued by gas crises, bell-bottom jeans, and a mysterious kidnapper (colloquially known as The Grabber, played by Ethan Hawke) who’s been making kids disappear, leaving only a couple of black party balloons in his wake.

That’s the least of young Finney Shaw’s (Mason Thames) problems, though; he’s bullied relentlessly at school and brutalized at home by his alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies). His only comfort, apart from horror movies, is his brainy sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), whom it’s implied picked up some clairvoyant abilities from their long-dead mother.

Believe it or not, Finney’s summer gets even worse from there: The Grabber manages to kidnap him too, taking him to a featureless concrete basement with nothing in it besides a stained mattress and a disconnected black telephone. But Finney’s got more of a fighting chance than he might expect, especially once that phone starts ringing and he hears the voices of the Grabber’s previous victims. They want to help, but each only has a piece of the puzzle. It’ll be up to Finney to put them all together – alongside Gwen, who tries to use her gifts to help the cops find her brother.

Hope Rings Eternal: So much of The Black Phone feels indebted to Stephen King, and rightly so. More than the Stranger Things-inflected ’70s /’ 80s nostalgia backdrop, it’s actually based on a short story by King’s son, Joe Hill. And as writer / director Scott Derrickson’s (alongside co-writer C. Robert Cargill) return to horror after taking a little break to play in the mystical realms of the MCU (Doctor Strange), it feels a fitting followup to more effective chillers like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It just feels like the pair have lost a step or two after their detour into the mystic arts.

The Black Phone Review

The Black Phone (Universal Pictures)

To be fair, the components are all there: the cast is largely excellent, especially Thames and McGraw as our erstwhile leads. As Finney, Thames has to carry so much of the film on his slight shoulders, his eyes studying every nook and cranny of his environs for a potential escape route. He’s got sufficient resolve for a horror movie protagonist, but Derrickson takes time to let him have realistic moments of desperation (including a break-down-and-cry moment when his latest potential avenue of escape proves fruitless).

His convos with the dead are well-rendered, Derrickson framing the pale corpses of the Grabber’s previous victims as though they’re talking straight at Finn, even though he only hears their muffled voices. The ghosts themselves can only help so much, as their fading souls remember less and less the longer they’ve been dead. But as they dispense advice, or even just cheer him on, those scenes play out in pleasingly bittersweet ways, especially with the kids’ strong performances.

Hawke, for his part, does a lot with a little. His Grabber is the cliched off-kilter serial killer with a scary modular mask that flits between comedy and tragedy depending on his mood. His motives are inscrutable, as are the reasons he lets his victims linger so long in his homemade prison (thus giving them convenient time to figure out escape plans; Andy Dufresne would envy the amount of free time Finney gets to try to dig some holes) .

Still, Hawke is having a blast, modulating his voice and physicality to present himself as both friend and danger. There’s not a lot there on the page for him to work with, but he pours enough honey and vinegar into his lines to make them shine in the moment.

Your Time / Life Operator: But what’s disappointing about The Black Phone is its inability to dig satisfyingly into its most interesting premise – what if a serial killer’s victims could help his latest target escape, even past the veil of death? But ideas and details are dropped as quickly as they’re picked up, and one contrivance after another feels designed to just keep the runtime rolling.

There’s the late-film introduction of Max (James Ransone), a coked-out conspiracy theorist whose unexpected connection to the case absolutely beggars belief. And there’s Gwen’s moving-in-circles investigation of his brother’s disappearance, which the police seem all too happy to entertain and take seriously. (Much props to McGraw, though, who gives a lovely performance in these otherwise superfluous scenes.)

The Black Phone Review

The Black Phone Review

The Black Phone (Universal Pictures)

Most importantly, The Grabber’s modus operandi seems deliberately designed to fail along so many different points, it’s astonishing he was ever able to keep one kid around long enough to kill him without anyone noticing. Why, oh, why let your newest mark just keep his sharp flashlight / knife – the very one he slashed your arm with when you kidnapped him?

It all feels like too much vestigial worldbuilding to distract from the far more interesting concept promised by the title. There are effectively two movies in here, fighting for dominance, and neither one comes out particularly strong by the end. There are a few effective moments of horror staging (especially with the floating, lingering ghosts of the Grabber’s victims, and their varying attempts to reach out from the beyond), and Mark Korven’s atonal, period-appropriate score helps keep the proceedings afloat at key moments.

The Verdict: One imagines what The Black Phone could have been had Derrickson and Cargill been able to (pardon the pun) kill some of their darlings. When it’s laser-focused on Finney and his attempts to craft his way out of his situation with the help of his ghostly predecessors, it’s appropriately gnarly and tense.

But with the limitations of a 100-minute runtime, and the pressure to also make the movie about Gwen’s spiritual attempts to find her brother, both halves of the story feel incomplete. The performances are strong, and the film excels in isolated setpieces. It’s just a shame to see a neat idea largely go to waste.

Where’s It Playing? The Black Phone gives you a busy signal in theaters June 24th.

Trailer:

The Black Phone Picks Up More Static Than Scares: Review
Clint Worthington

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