Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone” continues 2022’s sad streak of being one of the most uninteresting years on record.
Based on an excellent short story from author Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), director Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill adapted the creepy tale of a Colorado town plagued by a serial killer of children known as “The Grabber,” so named because of his M.O. of snatching kids off the street and into his black van.
What follows is a film that is over-crowded with plot while being simultaneously empty.
It is the 1970s (a setting the filmmakers hammer home with misplaced Rock & Roll songs and desperate pop culture references). Finney (Mason Thames) lives at home with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) and their alcoholic abusive father (the excruciatingly awful Jeremy Davies).
Finney is viciously bullied at school and at home. Gwen is almost the only peace he finds, save for a young classmate who has taken a shine to him.
The town they live in is gripped with fear over the child snatcher called “The Grabber”.
In perhaps the film’s biggest blunder, the children of the town are allowed to roam free without parental supervision, always out and about by themselves, wandering around empty parking lots and lonely streets. One would think (with a kidnapper actively on the loose) the police would issue not only a curfew, but a rule that kids cannot be on the streets without adult supervision. Maybe even punch up patrols of the streets, which are lacking a police presence.
After an uneven opening, The Grabber snatches Mason and keeps him locked in a dingy basement. There is a black phone on the wall. It is old and doesn’t work, but the spirits of the other victims call Mason, giving him clues to free himself from the terrors to come.
There was much drama to be mined from the cat and mouse games between captor and captive, but Derrickson and Cargill don’t seem to care. Their sloppy screenplay is only interested in portraying children in extreme peril.
Unlike Derrickson’s smart genre hybrid “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and his atmospheric horror treasure “Sinister”, this picture is a tonal mess. The filmmaker stumbles while trying hard to make something cohesive out of his blend of 70s coming of age film, family drama, and horror/thriller.
A large issue is the main cast and how their characters are written.
Mason Thames as Finney apparently doesn’t have a grasp on what proper emoting is, which makes his performance hollow and prevents any emotional connection to the character.
The script sets up Finney to be cautious and deeply concerned about The Grabber. When his sister brings up the killer (the two are walking to school alone!), Finney tells her to stop mentioning it and to not to say his name. The kid can’t take the fear of knowing this evil is out there. Why then, for a kid to be that scared of this predator, does he get too close when The Grabber pulls up (in his dark black van, mind you!) and dumps his groceries in front of him? For the smart kid the screenplay creates, he certainly has a moment of supreme stupidity.
Finney has a good relationship with his sister Gwen, who has psychic abilities (that will play a big part in the hunt for her missing brother), but the screenplay fails to set this up, throwing it out only when the film calls for it. A woman a few seats down from me asked the person she was with, “Wait, does she have psychic powers? Did I miss something? Did they mention it?” It is not a good sign when your audience is confused regarding an important plot device.
Madeleine McGraw is awful as Finney’s sister. She gives overwrought line readings like a child actor from a second-rate tv sitcom. Gwen is written as a “movie kid”. None of her emotions have a second of truth in them and her dialogue is offensive and lazy.
The film tries for laughs by having this sweet young girl spew explicit language in almost every scene, cursing at adults, police, and her fellow kiddies. This is not humor. This is desperation on the part of the filmmakers and is woefully misplaced here.
Two local detectives (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal) are investigating Mason’s disappearance. How these two earned their detective badges is one for the scholars. They give no insight nor show ability to investigate. The two actors look bored in their roles and probably were, as the picture treats them like buffoons.
That Finney receives otherworldly calls from the Grabber’s dead victims is certainly an inventive premise. Derrickson blows it rather quickly. Each call has the eerie sound of static and ghostly voices earning a few chills, but makes the mistake of showing the corpses, standing near or right behind Finney, lip syncing to the phone calls. This takes us completely out of the moment and negates the atmospheric horror of the scenes. The dead kids are used for nothing more than jump scares (a tired and cheap gimmick) and to placate younger horror audiences who need to be spoon fed.
The Grabber is played by Ethan Hawke, one of our most adventurous and most celebrated independent actors. The character is mostly in the background of the story and the film doesn’t care much for making him interesting beyond the terrifying mask he wears, courtesy of the great Tom Savini.
Hawke does what he can, but to constantly keep the character at bay is another of the film’s failings. The Grabber is a compelling creation, but he doesn’t do much more than bring Finney eggs and soda while spouting a few interesting lines.
The absolute worst part of Derrickson’s picture is the portrayal of the family drama.
Jeremy Davies is an endurance test for the audience. His character is already underwritten (existing as the tired cliché of the drunken father), but the actor’s insipid mannered acting “style” had me wishing The Grabber would snatch him away from the film.
In one of the worst scenes in recent movie history, the film “treats” its audience to a long moment where young Gwen is abused by her father. In closeup, he whips her with his belt again and again. She screams and cries. He screams back and beats her again. More screams, more sickening seconds while the camera holds on the torture of a young child. The scene is offensive junk.
Not much works in this messy film. The emotions and plot are so disconnected that everything becomes weightless and empty.
As a fan of Scott Derrickson’s work and a lifelong horror aficionado, “The Black Phone” is a desecration of Joe Hill’s original story and one of the biggest letdowns in a year chockfull of cinematic disappointments.