Ever since It floated its way to the top of the 2017 box office to become the highest-grossing horror film of all time, audiences have been treated to a nonstop torrent of Stephen King content, most of it pretty forgettable. As ripe for source material as King’s excellent body of work remains, it’s encouraging to see director Scott Derrickson (and his frequent screenwriting partner C. Robert Cargill) looking to the writings of King’s equally talented son, Joe Hill, for inspiration rather than trying to jumpstart the Pennywise Cinematic Universe.
The Black Phone, adapted from a story of the same name from Hill’s wonderful debut collection 20th Century Ghosts, is a mixed bag, with enough haunting atmosphere and tense sequences to deem it worthwhile even if they never cohere into something more substantial.
It’s 1978 in Denver, Colorado, and Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), spend their days dodging all kinds of violent menace, be it the belt of their drunk father (Jeremy Davies), the ruthless bullies at their school or a masked serial killer known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke), who’s already snatched five neighborhood kids and counting. The only leads the police have come from Gwen, whose disturbing dreams involving black balloons and a slow-cruising black van match witness descriptions.
Despite this not actually being a King adaptation, the fingerprints of 2017’s It are all over The Black Phone. Pre-teens cursing up a storm, shockingly brutal scenes of bullying, abusive parents, an incessant classic-rock soundtrack and that warm and grainy lens filter to lend the movie that retro look. Those were all charming touches about five years ago, but in a world where Stranger Things is the most-watched show on television, it all feels a bit played out.
That doesn’t mean Derrickson can’t shoot a fine-looking picture. At its best, The Black Phone manages to conjure up a couple moments of genuine terror. But sadly just a couple. As anyone could guess, it isn’t long until the Grabber abducts our young hero Finney and locks him up in a basement with nothing but a dingy toilet and a busted black rotary phone latched onto one concrete wall.
The abduction sequence is one of the film’s few effective scares, with a soft-spoken Hawke turning from clumsy buffoon to bloodthirsty shark at the drop of a dime, and the viciousness of his attack promises a movie that won’t be pulling any of its punches. Hawke’s oddly low-key performance eschews Hannibal Lecter theatrics in favor of more subtly deranged mannerisms. The problem is that he isn’t really given much to do besides wear a wide-grinning ghoul mask (that is, admittedly, pretty chilling). For a typically slender guy, Hawke cuts a pretty imposing figure, but much of his screen time is spent dropping off food for Mason and abruptly leaving or just sitting stoically in a chair at the top of the stairs, waiting for his captor to make a move. Due credit to Hawke for not opting to go over-the-top; however, he fails to make much of an impression here, and I think that’s more of a script issue than a performance one.
Without giving too much away, the black rotary phone plays a crucial part in Mason’s chances of escape while also introducing an unexpected supernatural bent to the proceedings. That phone introduces a neat wrinkle to the abduction premise while at the same time robbing the movie of a lot of potential thrills. Part of the fun of abduction movies is watching the main character’s attempts to outsmart their captor, and there is surprisingly little of that in The Black Phone. Unfortunately, the supernatural element allows for a series of some truly unbelievable plot contrivances that move the story forward in a way that doesn’t require any ingenuity from Mason. This is one of those movies where most things happen simply because that’s what the plot needs to happen in order to reach the ending the movie wants.
After Derrickson’s 2005 breakout The Exorcism of Emily Rose and 2012’s Sinister, it’s clear the man can direct a visually striking horror flick. Whether or not he can tell a compelling story has yet to be seen. With its grainy camerawork and grisly violence, Derrickson wanted to make a terrifying throwback to the nastiest works of 1970s horror with The Black Phone; it’s no coincidence that characters reference The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by name several times. For such a thing that works, audiences would be better served checking out director Ti West’s fantastic X from earlier this year. Otherwise, The Black Phone will make for a perfectly adequate watch when it drops on Netflix and spends a week as something like the #3 highest-streamed movie on the platform. I mean, just look at how creepy that mask looks; of course you’re going to check it out.