2/10 The Black Phone is this year’s Malignant, and that is not a compliment. It is a bizarre, incoherent mashup of several other movies and archetypes it admires but can’t come close to imitating. As a macabre circus-freak of a film, it’s required viewing, but for anyone just wanting to enjoy a movie, steer well clear.
North Denver, 1978- A serial child abductor known only as “the grabber” (Ethan Hawke) roams the gloomy North Denver suburbs, and as a new school year begins with noticeably fewer classmates, police are no closer to finding him, even though his hunting grounds are limited to a single elementary school zone. Finney Blake (Mason Thames) shelters from bullies and an abusive father as the grabber diddles all his classmates in the background until at long, long last, he’s kidnapped himself and locked in the grabber’s basement. His only resource is a disconnected black phone through which the grabber’s prior victims contact him from beyond the grave. Also, Blake’s little sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) has psychic powers, and the completely incompetent Denver police feel the need to enlist her help finding the grabber. Also, there is a coked-out dude named Max (James Ransone).
The Black Phone is writer/director/producer Scott Derrickson’s project after being fired from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. He rose to prominence in 2012 writing and directing Sinister for Blumhouse, which also starred Hawke, and Blumhouse was waiting to fund The Black Phone. Derrickson, a massive Doctor Strange fan, made an aggressive pitch to Disney for the first movie, but lost the sequel over “creative differences” after reportedly preparing to make it a full-on horror film – he was replaced by Sam Raimi, who really toned everything down. Derrickson immediately transitioned to The Black Phone, which cowriter C. Robert Cargill, who is also back from the Sinister team, was holding for him until he came free.
The personnel overlap from Sinister to The Black Phone, director, two writers, editor Frédéric Thoraval and players Hawke and Ransone, almost doesn’t feel like enough of an explanation – it’s the same movie. It’s set in what might be the same neighborhood, what could even be the same house, or at least one ruined by the same interior decorator. The super-8 montages with the low-quality footage standing in for creepiness are back for Gwen Blake’s clairvoyant dreams. It’s easy to believe the same guy designed Baghuul and the grabber’s obnoxious mask.
The shortcuts that set Sinister apart a decade ago are back and unchanged in The Black Phone as well, and that’s not a good thing. These movies aren’t scarier than their peers as much as they are harder to watch, with the animated child corpses and the low-grade footage montages – The Black Phone ups the ante with extended scenes right off the top of children getting beaten, including a scene of 11 year old Gwen Blake being whipped with a belt that seemingly refuses to end. Horror, good horror, is a catharsis, investigative instead of disgusting. Not all taboos in cinema are prejudicial, some things are taboo because nobody wants to sit down and watch them, and The Black Phone hangs out in that unpleasant space most movies refuse to go, but without the integrity to turn into a full snuff film.
Where Sinister was sold as a Paranormal Activity wannabe five years after that movie rocked theaters, The Black Phone presents as a Stephen King movie wannabe coming in near the end of a spate of Stephen King movies spurred by It and “Stranger Things.” There are plenty of other apparent recent thefts as well – noticeably, most of the sound cues are ripped straight out of Blade Runner 2049, for some reason. There are certainly worse movies to steal your sound from, but a score written for a silicon wasteland isn’t a good match for a serial killer’s gross basement.
The “Stephen King wannabe” is quite literal – The Black Phone is based on a short story by Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son who, judging by the movie at least, has picked up his father’s preferences for putting children in extreme predicaments, incorporating violent bullies and parents as background characters and multi-pronged premises with too much going on.
That particular trope of having multiple hooks and the need to explore all of them equally, a signature Stephen King flaw, is what really sinks The Black Phone. There’s too much going on, and individually, none of it is enough. The basic child kidnapping interchange between Finney Blake and the grabber gets what feels like barely any screentime. All the threads connect thematically just fine, but they don’t enhance each other – it feels less like the plots for different movies that overlap thematically, but compete with each other when put on the same screen.
There’s a lot of energy put into establishing the grabber’s five prior victims that constantly drags Finney Blake’s story to a crawl. The movie walks us through everyone else getting abducted, meaning it takes the lead character way too long to get grabbed in the first place, and when they each call him on the black phone in sequence, the focus is always on them. They draw out their calls with cryptic Sixth Sense grandstanding and making Blake guess who they are, and they still can’t just spit it out once that’s established. Blake’s eventual defeat of the grabber incorporates all of their viewpoints and then they all stand in a line together like they’re the avengers or something, it’s real pointed.
The subplot with Gwen Blake’s clairvoyance means that once Finney finally gets locked in the basement and the plot gets underway, we’re still constantly cutting away from it – it’s implied that Finney is also clairvoyant, which is what allows him to hear the black phone ring at all, and the grabber is as well, though he tells himself he’s imagining it, so it isn’t completely disconnected to the main plot, but it may as well be because they never intersect.
There’s a ton of queer coding connected to the clairvoyance, but it never goes anywhere. When Terrence Blake (Jeremy Davies), Gwen and Finney’s widowed father, beats Gwen with a belt early in the picture, he screams that her dreams aren’t real in a scene that parallels stories of parents trying to beat the queerness out of their children. She wears a big rainbow flag jacket for the climax. Finney Blake is constantly called anti-queer slurs by bullies who seem to have no other objection to him, and whatever’s going on with the grabber, he definitely isn’t straight, so there’s a clear connection between clairvoyance, implicit queerness and repression, either from without or within.
All four seasons of “Stranger Things” came out in between Sinister and The Black Phone, a fact that underscores just how much this very narrow alley of media has changed and solidified in that timeframe. There’s usually something to be said for standing out from the crowd, but once you get passed the noisy plot and the use of endangered children as an intensifier, they don’t stand out very much at all.
As hectic and grating as The Black Phone seems, there’s just not a lot here.