Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone stars Ethan Hawke as a child murderer, and it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill, who happens to be the son of Stephen King. As horror goes, on paper, this sounds like a home run. On the screen, it’s an adaptation of a short story that is well made, but feels like an adaptation of a short story. It’s a movie that left me more with a “Yes, and?” feeling than the stuff of nightmares should.
Here is a film in which all of the pieces are there, and I love the pieces. I just couldn’t help but feel like the pieces could’ve been better served. Derrickson has made some truly effective horror movies (if you haven’t, pop in his other Hawke collaboration Sinister), and he’s a pretty talented filmmaker in general. That is on display in The Black Phone, and his usage of the 1970s works in terms of production design and such. Yet the film has a premise that is intriguing but slightly undercooked. As a short story this would suffice, but there is a feeling while watching it that Derrickson could’ve dug deeper with his ideas.
This is a story centered on the supernatural, and when they center on it, it works. There is also a lack of an explanation in terms of that powers that are being here, and honestly that wasn’t an issue. It’s a simplified version of a high concept and that is just fine; we didn’t need an elaborate explanation as to why what is happening is happening. The issue though is that the movie isn’t really twisty enough. Derrickson pretty much takes the narrative from point A to point B and it’s all entertaining but there isn’t really too much in the way of intrigue. There is perhaps one single twist, and for my money, it doesn’t make much sense.
There is something consistently effective in The Black Phone, and that’s the central performances from Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. You notice Hawke isn’t included in that praise. He’s fine, but for whatever reason they didn’t give him all that much to work with. He’s creepy but there’s not only much of him but not that much to him, either. Another element of the film that could’ve been further explored. Hawke is one of our best, and his performance in First Reformed should’ve earned him every award under the sun. Yet you can’t help but sense an opportunity missed here.
Thames and McGraw though, are pretty excellent. Some of the dialogue that comes out of their mouths is funny in a jarring way, but they otherwise sell it beautifully. Thames plays Finney and McGraw is his sister Gwen. They live with their alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) who is harsh and abusive. Not totally sure why this is in the movie, as by the end it doesn’t amount to much. Yet the scenes with all three of them are hard to watch, but to the film’s success. Anyways, kids at their school have began to go missing. Gwen, we learn, has been having dreams in which she can see key elements of the kids’ disappearances, such as black balloons.
While walking home from school one day, Finney is kidnapped by the man with the black balloons. Who the town has nicknamed “The Grabber” (Hawke). On one hand, it’s kind of a shame that Hawke is forced to wear a mask the entire movie. On the other hand, the mask itself, which comes in two pieces (the eyes, and different facial expressions) is one of the more memorable ones in recent memory. The Grabber takes Finney to his soundproof basement. He of course intends on murdering Finney eventually, but for the meantime plays head-games with him. All the while, Finney discovers a mysterious black phone hanging on the wall. The Grabber assures him that it doesn’t work. Indeed, it does, but not like most; with this phone, Finney is able to communicate with The Grabber’s deceased victims, and through these chats they give Finney advice on how to escape.
All of this is watchable, all of this is decently made and acted. It’s just that something is missing. Having not read the short story, it’s unclear where things were added (though there are some guesses). What is clear though is that, arguably, more could’ve been added. I love the phone conversations, in which the deceased is in the room with Finney (though he can’t see them) and the audio from the phone is coming out their mouths. That works. There is also some cool stuff with Gwen’s abilities. The problem with The Black Phone though is that it reaches a point where it’s clear where the film is going, but there isn’t really too much there. It’s as if the writers just assumed that the premise would suffice.
To a degree, it does. The Black Phone is a film of moments, and it’s one that isn’t bad. It just could’ve been more. There could’ve been more to the Ethan Hawke character, more (or maybe less) of the alcoholic father, more in the way of scares (there are intense moments, but it’s not necessarily scary), more added to the plotting. It gets the job done well enough, but ultimately feels like something of a missed opportunity.
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