'The Black Phone': Ethan Hawke is Terrifying in an Otherwise Middling Horror Film
On paper, a film that is both based on a short story by Stephen King's son, Joe Hill, and directed by acclaimed horror director Scott Derrickson should be a slam dunk. While both men aren't exactly household names, their works have shown that they have some talent when it comes to their craft. In addition, the trailers and the massive marketing push that Universal and Blumhouse Productions have contributed greatly to the film's hype, with most of the advertising playing up how scary this film is. Perhaps it is because of all this potential that I couldn't help but feel underwhelmed by The Black Phone. It might succeed in being tense and unsettling, but it suffers from an underdeveloped script that takes the sting out of what could have been a great horror film.
It's not that the film is an outright disaster. On the contrary, certain elements of it are fairly good. The basic premise centers on a string of kidnappings in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. The year is 1978, which is a great setting for two reasons. One being that the stranger danger panic was a hot topic at this time, and two being that it pre-dates cell phones and other technologies that would have made it easier for authorities to crack the case. I could write a lengthy essay on how the invention of the cell phone has affected how films are written, but that's a conversation for another time. The point is that this film cuts cell phones out of the equation in order to play up the suspense and to have the audience wonder just how this film will play out. The main conflict of the film deals with Finney, a young boy who is abducted by a man called "The Grabber" who is behind the recent kidnappings. Finney is kept in a basement with few resources, one of which being a black telephone that appears to be disconnected. When the phone unexpectedly rings, Finney answers and finds that he may be able to communicate with The Grabber's previous victims.
If the film was just about the abduction and Finney's fight for survival, it would have been a much better film. This is largely because Scott Derrickson is great when it comes to horror, and he demonstrates that expertly with this film. The sequences that take place in the basement, as well as any of the scenes that feature The Grabber are well done, and Derrickson does a great job of building tension and suspense in these moments. The entire second act, and most of the third is quite intense, and had me wondering just where this story would end. It's not that the film is unpredictable, as certain plot points are pretty easy to guess, but the way that the plot unfolds plays up the mystery and has just enough details that will keep audiences guessing.
While Derrickson's direction helps the film substantially, it is hampered by its script. I'll admit that I haven't read Joe Hill's original short story that this is based on, but from what I've heard, it is a mostly faithful adaptation. What bothers me about the script is that it leaves so much in the air. Important character details are brought up and never fleshed out. Certain intriguing plot points are dropped for no apparent reason. While we do have moments that are thrilling and that do advance the plot nicely, there is just so much that gets left behind or that just doesn't fully add up in the grand scheme of the film. These details are all the more glaring considering that the first act of the film takes its time to set up so much of the world of the film. It feels like a massive exposition dump, and takes up way more of the film than it should. I was particularly confused by a plot point that seemed to set up Finney's father being abusive and an alcoholic, but this is never expounded on after the first act. Furthermore, a plot line involving Finney's sister is half-baked, which is disappointing as it is rather compelling. It just needed to be a little more fleshed out, or at least be established a bit clearer, which I don't think is too much to ask for.
The film picks up significantly in the second act, as the bulk of it takes place in the basement. During this time, there are several small details introduced that you might not think twice on, but it is clear that Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill are setting them up as if they were dominos. When we get to the film's third act, these dominos start to fall, leading to the film's climax which is quite effective. If the film were to end just after this moment, I would be much more positive towards it. Instead, we get an epilogue which feels unnecessary, and had me leaving the theater on a less than stellar note. It's just a shame, because the second and most of the third acts are pretty good, all things considered. It's just that they are bookended by some undercooked narrative details, and some unnecessary elements that drag down some of the great aspects in the middle sections of the film.
What the film lacks in terms of its script, it makes up for in its performances. I was especially impressed by how well the child actors in the film did. Mason Thames is quite good as Finney, and he handles some of the more emotionally demanding themes and situations of the film rather well. He also does some great non-verbal acting, which is very impressive given that he is so young. He conveys the fear and inner panic of his character so well, and shows a great deal of talent here. I also thought that Madeline McGraw did a fantastic job as Finney's little sister, Gwen. She plays a rather important role in the film, and also serves as a bit of comic relief at times. She is able to play up the precocious nature of the character, but she also brings a surprising amount of maturity to the role. I definitely hope that this film opens some doors for her career, as this is one of the better child performances I've seen in a while.
Every horror film needs a good villain, and The Grabber definitely fits that bill. It certainly helps that Ethan Hawke is playing him, as he has a knack for inhabiting his characters effortlessly and authentically. The Grabber is a different character for him, as he usually doesn't play villains, but he nails it. Hawke allows him to feel like a real person, which in turn makes him all the more frightening. He legitimately feels like a real person, which is all the more impressive considering that he is wearing various masks for most of the film. Speaking of those masks, I was impressed by the visually striking design of them. They are so unique, and the different versions we see over the course of the film help convey what image The Grabber is wanting to convey to Finney, and in turn, the audience. I have a strong feeling that The Grabber might end up being an iconic horror villain after this, and a lot of that has to do with Hawke's characterization of him and the masks he wears.
I am quite torn on The Black Phone as a whole. At its best, it is scary, intense, and has a lot of interesting ideas. At its worst, it is held down by a half-baked script that magnifies its flaws. I can see some people connecting with this film better than I did, but it doesn't live up to the hype for me. At the very least, this film does give us a great new horror villain with The Grabber, and has some intriguing elements, even if they don't fully come together. It's a mixed bag for sure, and some might get more out of this film than I did, but I felt that it squanders its potential and is merely OK at best.