After a brief foray into Marvel filmmaking with 2016’s Doctor Strange, writer-director Scott Derrickson has returned to the horror genre and brought us The Black Phone. The new horror-thriller stars Ethan Hawke as the film’s main antagonist, The Grabber, a man who has been abducting children in a Denver suburb in the late-1970s. Based on the 2004 short story by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, The Black Phone, written by C. Robert Cargill along with Derrickson, is at once an enriching expansion on the short story and an oftentimes muddled amalgam of disparate parts. It has lots of good ideas and filmmaking, but it ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
This is definitely an engaging story, and the film is both narratively and emotionally satisfying. By centering the story on Finney (Mason Thames), the latest kid to be taken by The Grabber, you’ll inherently be interested in the main storyline. Finney is a timid 13-year-old who’s constantly trying to avoid bullies at school, an abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies), and the memory of his mother, who passed away. The only constant positive in his life is his younger sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw), with whom he has a sweet and wholesome relationship, but who also has visions that she believes to come from Jesus. The visions are of all of the kids who’ve been taken by The Grabber, and they seem to have some degree of fact to them, so she talks to the police in their search for the missing kids.
And this isn’t the only supernatural aspect of the movie — as Finney is trapped in The Grabber’s basement, there’s that titular black phone hanging on the wall. It’s a rotary phone that’s been disconnected, but it rings anyway. When Finney answers the phone, on the other line are the spirits of The Grabber’s past victims, who give Finney advice on what to do to escape, since they came so close, but never could get all the way out. This all makes for some decent tension, as Finney tries what seems like countless ways to escape this basement. It can get a bit cheesy, but Thames’ performance elevates these scenes. He’s the main character, and is at the center of most of the film, so it lives and dies on how believable he is. His performance is subtle, but he effectively moves from terror, to anger, to kindness, to nervousness, and so much more.
Hawke is definitely the biggest name here, and he’s somewhat surprisingly utilized sparingly. Most of his dialogue is taken word-for-word from the short story, and he makes the words that much more menacing and terrifying than they are on the page. The addition of greater context to the story, though, dilutes the percentage of screen time that The Grabber gets. It works well for the overall plot, but it’s a shame based on the performance Hawke turns in. But the most effective addition to the film is The Grabber’s ever-changing horned mask. For the majority of the film, you never see more than half of his face, which makes Hawke’s performance rely heavily on line delivery and body language. He of course does this well, and the enigmatic Grabber is all the more frightening for it. In neither the short story nor the film do we get any backstory or extra information about The Grabber, besides the fact that he has a brother, and this works well to highlight Finney’s character. The Grabber is akin to the Joker in The Dark Knight, in that his reasoning and motivation isn’t the point — it’s what he brings out in our protagonist that really makes him shine.
The tension and scares brought about by The Grabber are where The Black Phone succeeds. Much like Derrickson’s Sinister, there isn’t a lot going on under the surface to really take the film above and beyond. There’s a good little arc for Finney where he learns to stand up for himself, but that’s the only theme or greater idea that’s fully cooked. The abusive father storyline was interesting, but there wasn’t really anything of substance done with it, and Gwen’s visions are almost completely narratively-driven. She questions and doubts Jesus himself because of these visions, but the film doesn’t seem too interested in their thematic ramifications. The same goes for the ghosts of The Grabber’s other victims. They exist to help Finney, and not much else. Their expansion from the short story was well-executed in the sense that we have a greater idea of this small town, and it helps build atmosphere, but by the end, you’ll be left wondering what the point of it all was.
The Black Phone is a mostly effective horror-thriller. It doesn’t nearly reach the horror highs of Sinister, but there are more characters and narratives to grab onto. Unfortunately, each one of these works better on their own, and they never quite coalesce into a wholly excellent film. It’s a solid flick, and works well as our summer horror fix, but it’s not going to stick with you too long after leaving the theater.