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The Black Phone Review: An Underwhelming Game of Telephone

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When The Black Phone was initially pushed from its early 2022 release dates (the film moved from late January to early February) to late June, I was devastated. The teaser trailer and images for the film displaying Ethan Hawke in a haunting mask kidnapping children made this one of my most-anticipated films of the year. Having to wait nearly five additional months felt like an eternity but the film, whether it’s the fault of high expectations or not, was underwhelming and you may be better off letting the phone ring if anyone tries to invite you to see the film.

“The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

It’s 1978 in a small town in Colorado. Five kids have been abducted by a man dubbed, “The Grabber.” Finney (Mason Thames) becomes the sixth child kidnapped and while trapped in the soundproof basement of “The Grabber,” he discovers a seemingly disconnected phone that occasionally rings. When picked up, Finney hears the voices of the ghosts of victims past including one of his good friends, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) that give him pointers in his attempts to escape.

To start with the positives, the performances in The Black Phone are as good as you’d imagine. Of course, Ethan Hawke is good as “The Grabber,” not that anyone expected anything less. Though the question of whether or not it’s the masks he wears that really heighten his performances is completely valid. The subtle changes from wide-grinned smiles to frowns are terrifying and are a great supplement to Hawke’s dynamic eye movements and cadence. Like any great ominous character, The Black Phone does sideline “The Grabber” for portions of the film to keep the mystique alive. I don’t even think the audience gets a full look at him until about 20 minutes in.

But the real standout is Madeleine McGraw as Gwen, Finney’s sister with the ability to receive clues from God in her dreams. From the snarky attitude that Gwen shares with the young Leia in Obi-Wan Kenobi to her more emotional scenes, McGraw is just fantastic and better be cast in a lot of projects coming up. Aside from Vivien Lyra Blair from Obi-Wan Kenobi, McGraw’s moxie is akin to Julia Butters in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

(from left) Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

Mason Thames is good as Finney, but the character is frustrating in itself. Obviously, The Black Phone is a horror film so there has to be some suspension of disbelief —especially considering there are supernatural elements in play — but half of the things Finney does are too hard to just go along with. First, how old is he? I’d have to imagine somewhere between 10-12, but are you really telling me to believe that he’s as resourceful as Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz or Andy in The Shawshank Redemption? There’s a scene where he’s pointed towards a wire that was hidden in the walls and he attempts to use it to pull the security bars off of the lone window in the basement. When he realizes he’s not Indiana Jones and cannot lasso it himself, he uses a rolled-up mattress to loop the wire around the bars and discards it when he’s got it. Now, I’m not a handyman, nor am I the sharpest tool in the shed, but I don’t feel as though I could make that sort of snap decision in that situation on the fly, much less a child half my age (I guess Kevin McCallister is the sole exception).

Speaking of that suspension of disbelief, the whole crux of the story is one of the many holes in the story. “The Grabber” is attempting to hide his extracurricular activities from his brother who is temporarily staying at his house. Bear in mind, it’s not as if “The Grabber” lives in the Parasite house with intricate places to hide shady activities. The reveal of how certain things are hidden is somehow even worse. It’s obviously hard to say much without spoiling, but just trust me in that both of these plot points are so incredibly puzzling.

(from left) Director Scott Derrickson and Mason Thames on the set of The Black Phone.

It should also be noted that the original short story of The Black Phone was written by Joe Hill, who just so happens to be Stephen King’s son. Even if I wasn’t aware of this going in, The Black Phone is filled with enough Stephen King-isms that would at least make you think to look it up after the credits roll. Some of those King-isms include the suburban location, bullies, and an abusive father. Regardless, I cannot speak to the film adaptation’s faithfulness to the original story, but I imagine the supernatural element was either added or bulked up in order to pad the runtime. After all, the original short story is likely under 50 pages, so things had to be added to stretch this story out to a movie length, but the supernatural element of The Black Phone is where the film begins going south.

The idea of Finney hearing the voices of previous victims through the titular phone sounds cool on paper, but in execution, it’s what holds the film back. Take Prisoners, for example. That is a film that took a child abduction story and maximized its potential by keeping it grounded in reality. Hugh Jackman’s character may go a bit far with his vigilantism, but the characters and scenarios all feel things that can (and do) happen in our everyday lives. That is the case with The Black Phone up until the phone rings for the first time. “The Grabber” wants to believe that the rings aren’t real (this, to my knowledge, is never explained) but Finney is definitely hearing something when he picks up the phone. But the sole purpose these spirits serve is to give Finney oddly specific advice like an NPC would when you can’t figure out the objectives of a video game mission and to provide a few cheap jumpscares. You know when the camera cuts to the back of a character, just for them to turn around and be confronted by someone/something? Those are the jumpscares I’m talking about with these spirits. Their dialogue is also so exposition-heavy and simply clunky. There are even little inconsistencies with them. All but one of them don’t know who Finney is, nor do they really care until he says their names. But why is it that only one of them is cognizant of who Finney is? Is it just because they were friends? Again, I don’t know how accurate this is to the short story, but there had to have been better ways to implement them because every scene where one shows up is cheesy. Perhaps not actually showing them in the same room as Finney like Hannah Baker’s ghost in 13 Reasons Why is a starting point.

Another glaring issue with The Black Phone is the repetitiveness of its second and third acts. Said acts follow a very simple template: “The Grabber” makes his way downstairs, usually carrying a tray of eggs or empty-handed and just there to deliver a creepy monologue, Finney tries a new way to break free (breaking the window bars, digging a hole, etc.), and then Finney gets a call from one of the previous victims that usually includes very specific measures to take. Take this template and repeat it four or five times and you have most of the second and third acts of The Black Phone. Rinse-and-repeat story beats can be forgivable, Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day have made a genre out of them, but all it does in the case of The Black Phone is make the film reach a point of redundancy.

(from left) Terrence Shaw (Jeremy Davies) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

To make matters worse, once he’s captured, the focus shifts almost entirely onto Finney and leaves Gwen and their father (played by Jeremy Davies who is quite good in his role) playing second fiddle. Obviously, the focus should be on Finney and “The Grabber,” but there’s a whole plot point about Finney and Gwen’s mother that is only talked about in very vague terms and never fully paid off. It’s easy to pick up some of what is implied, but I don’t believe the question of how Gwen got her dreaming powers is ever answered. I guess it’s not all that important in the grand scheme of things, but why open such a can of worms if you’re not going to pay off the story? Gwen gets abused over her dreams and the idea that her dreams are just dreams beaten into her head by her father all for nothing. It feels as though there are 20 more minutes of story missing and considering the film is only about 95 minutes without credits, I wouldn’t have minded just a little bit more here.

Regardless of my high expectations for the film, The Black Phone was a disappointment. I was always engaged, and the film makes for a fun theatrical experience, but the supernatural elements ruin a premise that is scary enough on its own. Ruining stellar premises by leaning too far into its supernatural elements must run in the King family, and it’s clear that The Black Phone had so much untapped potential. Though I will give a shoutout to James Ransone, who is no stranger to the world of Stephen King. I won’t spoil who he plays, but he gives one of the best coked-up performances since Pacino in Heat.

Grade: C+

Universal Pictures will release The Black Phone on June 24.

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[…] biopic of the “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis, and the Ethan Hawke-led horror flick, The Black Phone. The former was beat out by Top Gun: Maverick by a mere $176 dollars but still grossed an […]

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