The promos for The Black Phone had been out for months before it hit the theaters in June. The image of Ethan Hawke with a black and white Jokeresque grin mask and huge eye glasses and a top hat gave off an eerie vibe. What was The Black Phone? Is this like The Crooked Man in The Conjuring 2?
Audiences would have to wait as Blumhouse and Universal were scheduled to release the movie in the winter of 2022 but waited until the summer after some good buzz. But the more I found out about the movie, the less intriqued I was. Hawke plays The Grabber, just a regular child abductor and serial killer lurking in the suburbs of Denver in 1978. Hawke would reunite for the first time with director Scott Derrickson who also co-wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill after 10 years when they appeared in Sinister, a spooky but flawed movie in my opinion.
Sinister, at least had a creepy tone to it, that kept through the whole movie. One can’t go into Black Phone without thinking of Stranger Things. The movie is based on a short story with the same name published by Joe Hill in 2004. Hill is the eldest son of Stephen King, whose work influened Stranger Things. And since both the TV show and movie are set in that era where American youth were known as latchkey kids before they became known as Gen Xers.
The movie focuses on Finney Blake (Mason Thames), 13, whose mother is dead and father, Terrance (Jeremy Davies), is an alcoholic and abusive. Finney’s younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), has clairvoyance that is unexplained but suggested that her late mother had it. She has dreams of events in the era surrounding numerous young boys who have been abducted. This catches the attention of the local police who question her because she mentions black balloons, something authorities have left out.
Set five years before the abduction and murder of Florida resident Adam Walsh, authorities sadly didn’t take child abductions as seriously. There was no Stranger Danger at the time. The Satanic Panic was still a few years away from the events of Black Phone. Even Joe Walsh said Hollywood, Fla. police just left a note for Adam, 6, if and when he would return to the shopping mall he was last seen at.
A famous news report at the time asked the question “It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” The kids were mainly allowed to run all over town as long as they were home by sundown and even then, the parents didn’t care. Since Terrance is a drunk, Finney and Gwen discuss taking care of him as he usually passes out in the chair in the living room. (If they had cast anyone but Davies in the role, I might have bought the role and the character would have seem as terrifying. Davies is usually playing simple and weaker characters in Saving Private Ryan and Lost. He comes across more as an SNL stereotype of an abuser.)
Finney and Gwen have an odd home life where they’re not allowed to make too much noise. Gwen is used to spending Friday nights at her friend’s sleepover. And we have to see a ludicrous scene in which Terrance uses his belt to whip Gwen and threaten Finney because of her talking to the police. Finney is also the victim of bullies who beat him up with the teachers not even wondering why he’s coming to school with fresh bruises.
Finney strikes up a friendship with a fellow student, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who is quick to beat up another bully the way Edward Norton pummeled Jared Leto’s face in Fight Club. And mind you, none of this is getting reported. During one scene where three students jump Finney and kick him, Gwen is able to pick up a rock and whack one across the head to the point he bleeds out all over his shirt and has to sit down stunned.
Again, nothing is done. Derrickson and Cargill, who were the same age Finney in 1978, probably witnessed a lot of young people nearly kill each other or were the unfortunate victims with adults just telling them to knock it off. This alone is terrifying as no one seems to care. Bullying was considered a rite of passage at the time. And if a parent had to whip their child with a belt than it was no one else’s business and the child must have done something wrong to deserve it.
Robin is abducted by The Grabber and then Finney. But before Finney is abducted, Derrickson and Cargill show the odd home life of young people living with an abusive parent who seems caring one moment and pscyhotic the next. Since this is a great build-up, you would think when Finney is eventually abducted by The Grabber, the story would be just as creepy.
Well, think again. The movie just goes stale as every now and again, The Grabber, always wearing masks, comes down to the soundproof basement where Finney is held and they talk and he gives Finney scrambled eggs and a soft drink. They talk but there’s never any real threat to Finney’s life. Eventually, he begins to hear ringing from a disconnected black rotary phone hanging on the wall. When Finney picks it up, the people on the other line are the children who have been killed by the Grabber who tell him ways he can work on getting out of the basement.
This might have worked in a short story, but stretched out to a movie that’s 100 minutes long, it gets tedious after a while. There’s one scene involving a cable and a rolled-up rug that I really didn’t believe. This begs the question if maybe Finney is hallucinating since he’s in solitary and it’s common for people to do. There’s also an eccentric character, Max (James Ransome), who has been following the abductions but finds himself more connected than he thought. I found it highly unlikely this connection would go so long without it being noticed.
However, the movie’s climax does have some thrills to it as Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” plays so perfectly you wished the rest of the movie had this excitement and tension. But a flashback prior to when Finney remembers witnessing a fight among some older kids at a hangout spot is another part that drags the movie down.
While Thames and McGraw do a good job in their roles, Hawke, Davies and Ransome all seem to be a total different movie which would be directed by Eli Roth. This is sad because Derrickson has made some creepy movies, such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose which pulled a creepy performance out of Jennifer Carpenter. I just didn’t find The Grabber as sinister as he could’ve been, especially since he’s inspired by real-life serial killers Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. Also, you can seem elements of The Silence of the Lambs and Buffalo Bill but Ted Levine was better.
Black Phone got good reviews and a nice box office of over $150 million considering it was made for under $20 million. I just felt the movie disappointed after a big build-up in tone. Just like a very long phone call, you feel what needed to be said could have been said in a shorter time. But now you’re having to listen to the person on the other line tell you things you’re not interested in and hoping to quickly end the conversation.
What do you think? Please comment.