The Black Phone is the movie Scott Derrickson went off to direct after leaving Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness due to “creative differences”. He’d directed the first Dr Strange, a massive financial success, so you’d have thought the Marvel guys would cut him a bit more slack than they ultimately were prepared to.
Anyway, on to the next project, a strange (pun intended) genre-crash horror movie that’s not that frightening, nor does it seem intended to be.
Someone is kidnapping kids. Even big tough kids are disappearing into the van of some weird guy who leaves behind telltale black balloons. The kids are never seen again. Enter our milquetoast hero, Finney (Mason Thames), a bullied high schooler who cannot stand up for himself any time, anywhere. At home the drunken bullying dad (Jeremy Davies) and the weirdo sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who takes after her dead mother with her intuitive dreams which seem to see into other realities.
These feature later on, after Finney has become the latest victim of The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a child abductor working in the traditional groove – he locks them in the cellar, growls and cackles and make suggestive noises about future treats in store (for him, not his victim). The film’s title comes from the disused black phone fixed to the wall, which suddenly starts delivering communications to Finney from, one after the other, the dead kids who’ve previously passed through this cellar on their way to their fate.
As time goes by it becomes apparent that The Grabber doesn’t seem in any sort of hurry to lay a hand on his latest abductee, leaving Finney time to try out one resourceful escape strategy after another, while out in the free world, Gwen’s dreams are starting to lead her in you-know-which direction. In spite of the fact that she starts one beseeching prayer to the Almighty with the line, “Jesus, what the fuck!”
McGraw is the film’s secret weapon, a remarkable presence with a gift for comedy, line delivery and vitality suggesting we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the future. Derrickson paused the movie till she was available, apparently. She doesn’t get a lot to do, but what there is of it counts.
Actually, apart from Mason Thames, on whose young shoulders the movie sits, none of the cast really gets very much to do. For a horror movie, if that’s what it is, it’s strangely lacking in action and consequence. And the supernatural element (Gwen) undermines the natural – no one wants to see child abduction movies, but even less do they want to see child abduction movies where the case is solved by external supernatural intervention. That’s cheating. Either the kid works out how to get free, or the cavalry (police, parents, other kids) arrives on the scene.
A horror movie as metaphor seems to be what Derrickson is about here – will Finney grow a pair of balls and defend himself? The story could have played out in a school corridor or a playground but Derrickson’s upped the stakes by moving the stage for Finney’s metamorphosis underground.
It explains the lack of involvement by Ethan Hawke, who glowers and cackles and sits stripped to the waist on a kitchen chair in one mask or another (designed by industry legend Tom Savini) but does little more. And it explains Derrickson’s concentration on setting a 1970s high-school-movie mood – the grainy as-if-shot-on-film looks, the picket-fence Spielbergian, sun-in-the-lens setting. The original story is by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, and if The Grabber is faintly reminiscent of King’s Pennywise, the clown villain from It, Hill’s story stands in relation to King’s as Derrickson’s film does to the horror genre – it’s a flavouring, not the main event.
A genuinely bizarre movie that looks like it’s all about gruesomeness and then turns out to be something else entirely. You might feel cheated… or relieved.
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