Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by C. Scott Cargill and Scott Derrickson
So now Scott Derrickson, subsequent to his tumultuous ride with ultimately only one stop through the MCU, returns to horror. And not just to horror, generically, but to the specific ingredients of his most resonant hit, 2012's Sinister: Derrickson's frequent but not exclusive co-writer, C. Scott Cargill; Derrickson's erstwhile co-producer, Jason Blum; Super 8 film in some sequences, as well as some real serious underlighting in most others; a scenario built around crypto-pedophilia (barely "crypto" in this case), centered upon a villain with an unusual look and a desire to play, whose goal is to degrade and destroy children; the ghosts of those children whom that villain murdered; and, especially, Ethan Hawke in a starring role, though this time Hawke is the villain. It's not really that close in the specifics, but it's operating in the same niche—even somewhat like an inverted version of Sinister 2, so that this is vaguely like that but if Hawke played Bughuul. The most salient similarity, however, is simply that it's good. Derrickson is, to quote myself, an uneven talent. At a minimum, he's uneven at choosing projects upon which to apply his talent, and certain tendencies (especially his penchant for "true" stories and exorcisms) have tended to steer him toward some real dicey films; thus of the four horror movies he's worked on previously as either co-writer or co-writer/director*, the only good ones are Sinister and, to a much lesser extent, Sinister's sequel. One's tempted to say that Derrickson needs Cargill around to do anything right (and whether it's horror or not: Cargill co-wrote Doctor Strange with Derrickson, but neither one wrote The Day the Earth Stood Still), which is meaner than anything I'd prefer to say about a filmmaker I root for, but the data does suggest it. In any case, certainly the ingredients at play in The Black Phone bring out the best in him.
Or if not the best, at least the better: I will never understand the mystery of how certain things get selected for the Internet hype treatment (besides Universal's marketing budget, my guess is it started with a desire to show affection for Hawke, increasingly recognized as having always been one of the best actors of his generation, and it snowballed from there), but The Black Phone came out of the film festival circuit last year freighted with a downright burdensome amount of it, and I do not know if this film justifies any particular hype. At least the grandiosity of the praise it's getting isn't uniform, but there are some folks just going mad for The Black Phone, ascribing qualities to it that I can only barely square with the movie I personally saw. (There's an element of frustration and "but what about the movie I like?" whining to my reaction, I admit: if there's a film that this most resembles, it's not even Sinister, but the other best horror movie of the 2010s, Summer of 84, which did everything that The Black Phone does, but did it first, did it better, and in particular did it with infinitely more consequence and meaning, yet came and went largely ignored by the world.) I'll give it one superlative: it's absolutely the best feature adaptation of a Joe Hill story to date. High bar, I know. I'm content, then, with The Black Phone being good overall, though not everything about it is good.
So: The Black Phone takes us back to the late summer or early autumn—late enough, anyway, for school to have begun—of 1978, in a suburban town somewhere outside of Denver. For long enough that he's been given a lurid trade name by the papers, this town and its environs have been subject to the depredations of "The Grabber" (Hawke), an abductor and, as we'll find out though we could have guessed, murderer of young boys. We've already witnessed the Grabber pick one up, panel van-style, even before we're out of the opening scene, this victim being an acquaintance of our man Finn "Finney" Shaw (Mason Thames), who just finished playing a little league game with him. The implication is that if Finney's home was in the other direction, he'd have been the one rendered off to the Grabber's dungeon in a portentous fade-to-black. Well, there's time yet.
Finney's own home life is a bit unpleasant already: his mother is dead, his father (Jeremy Davies) is an alcoholic who alternates between neglectful and abusive, and mostly it's just him and his beloved little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). His school life might be even worse, Finney's sensitive and retiring tendencies having marked him as an easy target for bullies, and he becomes an easier target still when his principal defender Robin (Miguel Cazaraz Mora) also vanishes off the streets, another victim of the Grabber. Not much time goes by before Finney has to deal with something worse than bullies himself; on his way home, a man in a black van pulls the old "dropping his groceries" trick, and, with a lungfull of an asphyxiating aerosol and hidden within a flight of black balloons, Finney is rendered to the Grabber's bunker, a soundproofed concrete basement with one locked exit, a window that can't be reached, a toilet, and, curiously, a disconnected black phone. Finney is surprised to hear it ring: the Grabber breezily explains that he can't figure that out either, but it must be something to do with static electricity; certainly you can't call anybody on it, as the line is literally hanging there, cut. But the Grabber is wrong about one thing: somebody can call you. Thus do the ghosts of the Grabber's previous victims counsel Finney in his plans to escape and, if it comes to it, confront their murderer directly.
The short version, losing little: the kidnap thriller where angry but helpful ghosts ring you up on the phone. Even the long version leaves out some detail, however, like the Grabber's unemployed (and unaware) party-hard brother (James Ransone, for the full Sinister reunion); but it especially leaves out wee Gwen's oneiromancy. (I also skipped her personality, which involves precocity, child swearing that the screenplay clearly thinks is more interesting than it actually is, and repeating things her brother already knows for the benefit of the audience.) Gwen has true dreams, see, permitting her access to her own whole psychic child subplot that begins in earnest when Gwen sets herself to finding her lost sibling. I would not mention it if it didn't make itself necessary, but Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and for some reason this did not caution him to put on the brakes as he turned something that was similar to his dad's stories already into something distractingly similar to his dad's stories. Derrickson and Cargill didn't see any reason to dispense with it in their adaptation, possibly because it was a short story, and they perceived a need to have something to intercut the more intense stuff with, buffering the uglier sequences in the Grabber's basement. Equally plausibly, it's because Derrickson saw in Gwen's dreams the chance to play with Super 8 again, in cheap callback to the techniques of his signature film. It's a real hat on a hat, not necessarily without its own merit, but superfluous: nothing about "ghosts on a broken telephone" actually demands Gwen or Finn or the Grabber have possession of latent psychic powers. It ultimately ties up a significant chunk of screentime, which turns out to be a problem given what doesn't have as much screentime.
The actual core of the story fares substantially better, and I wonder if a Black Phone that locked the action down to its single location (well, two locations, counting the Grabber's upstairs living space) would have acquitted itself with even more distinction. The dungeon is a terrific piece of minimalistic design, so spare it already feels like a nightmare, a series of concrete slabs given personality and ugly menace by a giant crack ribboned with red oxides running down the far wall and a barred window that's usually the sole source of illumination, casting slatted shadows upon that broken black phone that doesn't even quite just sit there on the wall, but sometimes pulsates, like a Cronenberg creation. The conceit of the ghosts—though by their very presence foregrounding the gruesome stakes—winds up lifting the scenario out of the miserablism it could've gotten caught in. After the initial disorientation and trauma, things take on a shockingly procedural cast, at least for a movie about a kid in the clutches of a crypto-rapist. The real plot here is ultimately a series of discrete steps, some of them false ones, some of them only seeming to be false, that bring Finney ever-closer to meeting the challenge posed by his captor. It almost takes it out of horror altogether: it's much more thriller than horror (though the visual and audio distortions that attend the ghosts keep it rooted in horror), and for this story that trade's a reasonable one.
That's where Hawke comes in, his face almost always obscured by the masks which the Grabber wears to reflect the phase of the "game" he's playing. It almost goes without saying that it is a good performance, and it's arguably down to Hawke as much as the ghosts that the movie was ever horror in the first place; he brings a sort-of childish demeanor to the Grabber, but in more oblique ways than you expect. There's something subtly out-of-control about him, the sense that if he doesn't reenact what we're meant to assume were his own childhood traumas, he'll be the one punished; there are persistent hints that his eyes aren't matching the expressions of his mask, if only you could see them (I don't know if I'm lodging the dingy, obscuring shadow work on Hawke's eyes as "complaint" or "compliment"). Sometimes you can see the mismatch.
Hawke is almost too good: he opens the door to strains of psychological horror that the film, in fact, is not remotely interested in addressing. It's more of a metaphor for how it's the pile of bodies that eventually gets serial killers caught. It's likewise, very obviously, "about abuse"—I do like the invitation to draw the parallels between the Grabber and Mr. Shaw, but also the contrasts (it's discipline gotten out of hand thanks to grief in Finney's dad's case, and this film seems to be aware that his abusiveness barely even crosses a line in 1978)—but the Grabber is, I hate to say it, disappointingly ordinary, even with Hawke behind the mask. There's gimmickry, theatrical madness, and a general icky radness incipient in this villain. But only incipient: it never gets a chance to come out except in flashes, and those flashes are very few and very brief. There is probably four times less Grabber in The Black Phone than there is Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and if that seems like a slightly arbitrary comparison, it's because in addition to stealing concepts from The Shining, The Black Phone also steals a big structural trick from Silence. (For that matter, it steals a structural trick from The Shining, too.) The attempt to make the villain more of an offscreen force than an active presence doesn't "fail," but that means there's no distraction whatsoever from the several ways this is all prefabricated, predictable horror-thriller stuff. (Or almost all: I can't tell if I actually like the denouement, which is about as psychologically robust as Flight of the Navigator and possibly less, but I will give it credit for zigging where it would usually zag.) It's good, but it doesn't even want to be great, and had greatness thrust on it anyway by Internet hyperbole culture. But "being good" is no sin, and a good enough horror movie is, well, exactly what it says.
*There are of course six proper "horror films" in Derrickson's filmography, and in the interest of disclosure, I can't speak to his first two, Urban Legends: Final Cut or Hellraiser: Inferno, for while I'm happy to do catch-up on Derrickson, for a certain value of "happy," I simply don't have the patience to do franchise catch-up, too.