The Black Phone

When I first saw the trailer for this one, I was excited; it looked right up my alley with regards to themes and style. I’m a fan of the director (Scott Derrickson – Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us from Evil), and its based on a story by Joe Hill who is Stephen Kings son and a reasonably good writer in his own right (I really dug ‘Heart-shaped Box’ but couldn’t get through ‘The Fireman’ so there was some caution there). This quickly became my most anticipated film of the year.

Firstly the plot – A serial kidnapper called ‘The Grabber’ is stalking the kids in small town America in the 70s. Finney (Mason Thames) is victim number five and when he awakens in a soundproof basement with only a supposedly broken phone on the wall, he knows he is in some strife. That is, until the phone starts ringing and he hears from the previous child victims hints and tips on how to defeat The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Outside the confines of his prison, his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is working hard to convince the police and her own abusive father (Jeremy Davies) that the visions she has of Finney and the other victims are real, and could help them find him before its too late. But the clock is ticking…

The acting here is mostly good. James Ransone was a wonderful addition to the cast, he’s always good in everything he does and always adds a touch of eccentricity to his characters.
Ethan Hawke was excellent as The Grabber, a fully committed performance in a role that I know from reading interviews he was not convinced he was wanting or willing to play. He was by turns skin-crawly, malevolent, childish, threatening.
Thames playing Finney also gave a fine performance as the kid in peril learning to fight from those who lost before him.
The cast is rounded out by an inconsistent performance by McGraw as Gwen – she is given a sassy character that will blind some people to the quality of her performance, but she was either great or terrible and there didn’t seem to be any middle-ground; and every time she was bad it took me out of the movie.

The main problem here is that all the ‘scares’ were completely telegraphed in a not-so-well-written script; a lot was given away in the trailer and the rest you could see a mile away if you’ve watched more than a few horror movies.

There were no surprises at all and quite a lot of plotholes, such as a scene where Finney manages to remove the bars from the window in his small cellar-dwelling and nothing is made of this, he is not punished, the Grabber never even mention it and there seems to be no repercussions from this act which would have certainly compromised the soundproof quality of his ‘prison’. Why, in a small town, are the police struggling to find an obvious sinister black van? The grabber shares his home – how is he getting away with the things he does? what exactly is the ‘naughty boy’ game? why would he let Finney keep his ‘weapon’? why did this all start? and why on earth would there be a phone there in the first place?
Moreover, you never feel like he is ever in any real peril and there is never any doubt in your mind that he will survive to the end, which makes The Grabber feel nonthreatening.
This feels like a short story stretched out beyond its limits, and that is why it is so repetitive when each day a new kid teaches Finney something that they learnt while they were captured.
You can’t help but wonder why when their plans failed for them, they think they will work for Finney.

I really like the aesthetic of this film, the 70s vibe was well-realised, The Grabbers masks are exceptionally well-done, the dreams/visions looked fantastic – disjointed and full of crashing information like dreams are, Derrickson always does a good job in making things look creepy, dark, grainy, lived-in; but I felt the script was too weak to support what could’ve been a really great story had it had more context, depth, and time spent on really fleshing out the intricacies of a more complex plot. While I appreciated the efforts to give the characters more ‘grey areas’, they needed further work to truly come alive as people who could engage you.

Though underwhelming and somewhat forgettable, this isn’t a bad film, but it should have been far better and somehow that irks me more.

I wish it had been stronger



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