The Black Phone calls up effective scares, but a scattered story
Scott Derrickson’s horror movie will leave you hanging.
Of all the directors to get caught in the Marvel movie machine, Scott Derrickson, director of the first Doctor Strange movie, is an outlier. His pre-Marvel career was a hodgepodge of dark movies (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Sinister biggest among them) that fit a character like Stephen Strange, but perhaps not the eventual vibe of the MCU as a whole. That might explain his early exit from The Multiverse of Madness due to “creative differences.”
Derrickson’s latest film, The Black Phone, developed on the rebound from that departure, gets back to his horror roots. It also came with some high expectations. Adapted from a Joe Hill short story, The Black Phone is in a world where morals, survival, and the supernatural exist on a plane primed to crack at any moment. Unfortunately, for all the good elements of the movie (of which there are several), there are a dozen problems holding it back.
Set in 1978 North Denver, The Black Phone details a series of child kidnappings by an assailant dubbed “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke). Missing children posters adorn telephone poles and fences, reminding youngsters on their way to school of the potential danger lurking around the corner.
For young Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw), The Grabber is another blight on an already troubled upbringing. Their mother passed years earlier, leaving them in the care of an abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies). Finney and Gwen are thick as thieves, and endlessly protective, a bond that comes in handy when Finney becomes The Grabber’s latest would-be victim.
Derrickson spends the first part of The Black Phone building Gwen and Finney’s world. It’s a grim space populated by children who feel plucked directly from The Bad News Bears, The Monster Squad, or Stand By Me. These kids curse and terrorize each other, sometimes so intensely that it requires a trip to the hospital, as when Gwen cracks a bully’s head open with a rock.
The tone is already pretty unhappy, but it gets even darker when the focus shifts to The Grabber’s basement. Hawke commands the screen with an astonishingly layered performance, even if the script doesn’t give him much to work with. Hawke’s Grabber is a sinister depiction of how childhood trauma can lead to lasting damage, with the character’s hinted backstory creating an interesting duality with Finney’s own.
Finney’s one ray of hope is a disconnected black phone that only he can hear ringing. The voices on the other end are the spirits of The Grabber’s past victims, who each have a piece of the puzzle that can help Finney escape. Meanwhile, across town, Gwen is in a battle of her own, as her nightmares provide a window into where her brother is being hidden.
The Black Phone slowly builds up the story’s supernatural elements, but Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill never go as deep as they could. This creates a weird schism at the center of an otherwise intriguing premise, with neither the otherworldly story nor the serial killer narrative getting the attention they deserve. That dichotomy never fully sinks the film—its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Still, it’s disappointing that the film’s main two aspects are incomplete.
The Black Phone squeaks by thanks to a terrific unnerving atmosphere and a central trio of sensational performances. However, loose threads loom large over the film, robbing it of some of the black magic it wants to cast.
That’s a shame, given the talent in front of and behind the camera. The image of Ethan Hawke in a series of freaky masks leaves a bigger impression than anything in the story itself.