After a middling sequel and a detour into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the collaborators behind 2012’s Sinister reunite to test out what more or less worked last time. Like that film, The Black Phone is a Blumhouse horror-thriller tangled up in old technology and dead children. It also counts Ethan Hawke and James Ransone among its cast, though this time Hawke plays the villain: a magician and serial child abductor terrorizing a late-70s suburb with a black van and a billowing mass of black balloons. Referred to in the papers as “The Grabber,” the man’s methods aren’t shown right away — he simply looms in the background of several early scenes, which ominously fade out as a young boy begins to get walk too close.
The weathered missing posters around the neighborhood count five boys gone by the time Finey (Mason Thames) wakes up in The Grabber’s basement. He has only two slim chances to avoid becoming the sixth murder. The first is his younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), whose psychic dreams are gradually drawing investigators (E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal) closer to the culprit. The other is the only real adornment in Finney’s soundproofed concrete prison: an old-timey black phone that lets him talk to the spirits of The Grabber’s prior victims, who tell him about the progress they made toward escape before they realized they were too late.
As described, The Black Phone has an immediacy and an economy that extends to its short story source material by Joe Hill. But it’s far from an elaborate premise, and much of the film finds director/co-writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill straining to fill out the story for feature length.
Gotta Grab’em All
Initially, the film spends a lot of time on Finney’s home life. His neighborhood is a busy mesh of wire fencing that ultimately does little to keep its kids safe, either from adults or from each other. He’s close with Gwen, in the way siblings grow close when they only have each other in the face of their single father’s (Jeremy Davies) alcoholism. Finney has a crush on his science lab partner, and he tutors the toughest kid in class, who keeps bullies off his back until even the toughest kid in class turns out to be no match for the Grabber.
This day-in-the-life material is undoubtedly The Black Phone at its most evocative and specific, but for as much space as it takes up in the film’s linear timeline, it does little to color Finney’s eventual predicament. Mostly, it just gives a discount Stephen King feel to a story that was written by his son, whose work certainly has its similarities but who did not (this time, anyway) linger on the stuff about the bullying and psychic sensitivity. To a point, Derrickson even regurgitates his own material, filtering Gwen’s dreams through a grainy home-video style that’s plainly just here because it worked well in Sinister.
And though Sinister unravels as it insists on explaining itself, it builds around its own hook with reasonable effectiveness. It mixes the fuzzy aesthetics of yesteryear with an internet style of horror, where the monster lurks at the edge of images that need to be paused and zoomed-in while sometimes popping out for a “boo!” like a screamer video. The Black Phone may be titled after the very thing that ought to center the film, but its story never coheres the same way; dead kids telling Finney about a ripped-out cord or a loose panel never elevates his situation beyond rote captivity fare. We see little of what happened to the kids, and their apparent discontent as ghosts goes nowhere. At worst, they feel like the hint system for an adventure game that insists on doing a jump scare every time you get stuck.
Downhill from Here
The Grabber isn’t much better, thinly characterized to a degree that suggests emptiness rather than mystery. His modular white mask, which lets him swap out various frozen facial expressions, never registers beyond a clownish gimmick adjacent to a Joker or a Pennywise. At a few points, we wonder whether The Grabber is playing mind games with Finney or inadvertently revealing things about himself and his situation, but the kids’ ghost hotline otherwise lets Finney avoid beatings. Beyond giving them all the standard “dead child” look, the film seems reluctant to show or even discuss much of what The Grabber did to Finney’s predecessors.
Brief hints of sexual motivation aside, the film pulls so many punches that it struggles to maintain any persistent sense of dread and threat. There are individual scenes that work, like Finney fumbling with a combination lock while his captor sleeps in the blurry background, but the scenes of Gwen’s search and her visions constantly puncture any sense of isolation. It feels a little like trying to move the Silence of the Lambs captivity subplot to the forefront, to the point where The Black Phone even references that film’s climactic twist.
In a film so utterly enveloped in the stink of self-conscious screenwritten cleverness, it’s not a difficult twist to see coming. Everything about the movie is structured for suffocating clarity, declaring its tidy themes and applying comic relief through a coked-up paranoiac (Ransone) and some precociously foul-mouthed outbursts from Gwen. Naturally, Finney’s escape is tied up in some banal level of teenage self-actualization, with The Grabber functioning as a tenuous parallel to Finney’s dad because they both use the belt on children. (That dear old Dad expresses remorse sets up a level of inner conflict that never goes anywhere.)
Given the subject matter, The Black Phone ought to be uncomfortable. In its dream sequences and its grungy opening credits sequence, it seems to aspire to such an atmosphere. Derrickson and Cargill even rein in some of the overexplanatory tendencies that sink the latter part of Sinister. Clearly the intent here is for a film whose spare, reserved qualities make it all the more unnerving, but by the end, The Black Phone can’t help but twist itself into a neat and efficient shape anyway.