Directed by Scott Derricksen and and written by C. Robert Cargill, The Black Phone reunites a power packed duo that took on Hollywood blockbusters including Sinister (2012) and Doctor Strange (2016). Additionally, Derrickson lays claim to Hellraiser: Inferno as well as a couple of forays into the world of demonic possession. Both Derrickson and Cargill also reunite with actor Ethan Hawke to reinvigorate a short-story, also titled “The Black Phone”, originally penned by Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King. Jason Blum also contributes to the production team. It’s really too much to bear as we simply can not stop namedropping.
Produced by Blumhouse Productions, The Black Phone released in the United States to significant acclaim in June of 2022.
Come Aboard the Wayback Machine
The Black Phone begins in 1978. A young man named Finney, brilliantly played by Mason Thames, lives life in a small suburb of Denver, Colorado. Finney is a capable of kid dealing with sub-optimal circumstances. His father drinks too much and often boils over with piss and vinegar. He tends to erupt in violence over the smallest things. While not necessarily cowardly, Finney avoids contact and often gets rescued by either his friend Robin, or his sister Gwen. In fact, Gwen protects Finney in more ways than one. She receives visions in her dreams, and often those dreams turn out to be true.
However, apart the normal bumps and bruises that plague adolescents, something more sinister lurks in the shadows. Children begin to disappear, never to return. Even Finney’s friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) turns up on a milk carton. Named, “The Grabber”, the perpetrator leaves very few clues apart from random black balloons. The police see the balloons at the crime scene; Gwen sees them in her dreams. One day, on his return home, Finney’s good nature brings him within The Grabber’s reach and now Finney must fight for his life to avoid the tragedy that befell the The Grabber’s other victims.
Finney’s path to redemption is wrought with peril, and you can bet your last dollar that it involves a black phone.
The Good Stuff
Scott Derricksen assembles a fantastic cast of your people for his film. As a child looking in the face of certain doom, Mason Thames brilliantly portrays a sympathetic character. However, he provides much more. In addition to his fragile demeanor, he also portrays a razor sharp wit and flickering flame that never extinguishes despite his repeated failures to escape. Both he Gwen show through their performances the razor sharp edge that their hard-knock life honed.
The other children come to life as caricatures of 70’s youth culture with their afros, head bands and jean jackets. Derricksen’s depictions of adolescence posses an authenticity as each portrays complicated youth possessing both a good side, and reckless abandon.
Pulling from dusty crates at the back of the record store, the soundtrack also has some gems. The movie kick off with “Slow Ride” from the Edgar Winter’s group. While not a favorite on my playlist, the track easily transports the viewer to the days of classic rock. “Fox on the run” from Sweet pulls double duty between this film and the Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. Again, not a favorite but pretty well a mainstay on 70’s pop radio.
Most brilliantly, Derricksen plays Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” in the background while Finney’s anxiously awaits the return of The Grabber from the hardware. He left to procure quicklime and plastic to finish the job on Finney. The music perfectly matches the escalating tension and one can never really get enough Pink Floyd.
The underlying story concerns a disconnected black phone that mysteriously rings. At first Finney believes that he is hallucinating, but it turns out that past victims have found a channel to speak to the living. The black phone as a plot device works pretty well at first, but eventually the gimmick becomes a bit too predictable and ultimately runs long in the tooth.
Yeah Man, the 70’s and 80’s Were Cool But…
Blaming the Duffer Brothers and Stranger Things, it seems that nostalgic horror risks teetering into the abyss of cliché. To be clear, I love the 70’s and the 80’s and quite frankly some of my best years were spent there. I couldn’t love the horror cinema from that era more. Yet, I would be remiss not to call out the trend of cinematic appropriation that dominates the scene. In this particular film, Derricksen really leans into the model set forth by the Duffer brothers.
In one stand-out scene, a long haired kid goes bananas after having his pinball game ruined, and he brutally beats the kid responsible. Throughout the scene, pictures of Billy Hargrove from Harkins Indiana hopelessly reverberate in the head.
We had The Void (2017) bringing back the practical effects of the 80’s that we were all waiting for. X (2022) takes us back to old farmhouses with serial killers. Stranger Things recycled just about every Steven Spielberg gimmick from a period of 2 decades. The Black Phone goes further by revitalizing images of Victor Pascow and Pet Semetary. “Sometimes… Dead is Better!” Enough! Just about every film from those era still exists and as has a high-quality transfer to Blu-Ray or 4K. None of us have seen them all, so there is still plenty of content. Can we move on?
Probably the place that I disconnect most with the population of fans that love this film concerns the portrayal of The Grabber. Ethan Hawke hopelessly wanders in his role as the killer and comes off as neither believable or menacing. Attempts at black humor fall flat and at no point does the killer exhibit personality traits that make him unique. For the duration of the film, Ethan Hawke wears an evolving mask that I can only describe as comical.
The mask appears to be modular design that can have certain pieces present or not. The first iteration that the audiences sees comes literally from the stage of a Ghost B.C. concert (tell me I’m wrong). All other iterations look like comedy/tragedy masks.
The final knock against The Black Phone comes from the movies horror composition. Derricksen spends the first 30 minutes putting a 70’s patina. This includes a long winded exposition of characters back stories. Not a scare in sight. When the scares do finally start to trickle in, they are all naked jump scares. These are not particularly good jump scares either. Derricksen lays down a stack of ho-hum parlor tricks to periodically get a rise out of the audience. More horror provoking would be the the futility of Finney’s situation, but the audience never doubts for a moment that he will eventually escape.
Derricksen wraps it up with a “who cares?” plot twist to put the finishing touches on his new-old horror movie.
This review may seem to indicate that The Black Phone sucksé, but that truth proves more complicated that that. The Black Phone is a well made movie that carries a lot of boring baggage and overdone clichés. In the end, The Black Phone simply fails break any new ground. Nor, does it make a statement other than to provide a gentle reminder not to let your kids hang out with creepsters holding black balloons. Decent, but forgettable might describe The Black Phone best. The deep chasm that separates Malevolent Dark from popular opinion on this one might be more interesting than the film itself.