You know we here at No But Listen love horror. So, when Scott Derrickson (of Sinister genre form) and his new movie, The Black Phone, seemed to become the big horror blockbuster hit of the summer, you know we were there with our butts on the very edge of our seats to enjoy it. Adapted from a Joe Hill story of the same name, The Black Phone follows Finney (Mason Thames), a young boy from an abusive home who is kidnapped by a serial child killer terrorizing his neighborhood, while his younger sister (Madeleine McGraw) has psychic visions that lead her to his discovery.
I think what’s most frustrating about The Black Phone is how good the horror aspect is. When it comes to the titular part of the story – Finney attempting to escape his captor (the Grabber, as played by Ethan Hawke) through supernatural communication with the killer’s previous victims – there’s a lot to like here. The performances are good, the atmosphere is right, the scares hit impressively well. I’m not as convinced as some other reviewers about the transformative quality of Ethan Hawke’s performance here – he’s…just wearing a mask, honestly – but he’s good enough, a threatening presence swinging between pseudo-kindness and exceptional violence. If this had been the main thrust of the movie, I think The Black Phone would have been a pretty serviceable locked-room horror-thriller, nothing unbelievably brilliant, but certainly not bad.
Which is why the rest of the movie is such an incredible let-down. Outside of the basement where Finney is being held captive, Scott Derrickson wants us to believe that a frantic police search is going on to try and bring this prolific child killer to justice. I say “wants us to believe”, because nothing in this so-called mystery plot actually serves to suggest that’s actually happening.
A good portion of the film is dedicated to the period before Finney is taken, as friends and classmates are snatched, tortured, and murdered by the Grabber: aside from a handful of Missing posters hanging on a few fences, the community seems downright ambivalent about it. There’s no effort in showing the impact this has had on this apparently close-knit small town, no attempt to check in with the families of the lost boys, not even a hint that parents are bothered about letting their children walk home from school alone in the midst of one of the most prolific child kidnappers the country would ever have seen at this point. It’s possible Derrickson was trying to reference a more innocent time where nefarious evil was less likely to be assumed, but even still, if that was his intention, he needed to show it – as it is, it’s almost comically blase.
But, of course, the local police (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudescal) are on the case, right? Well. The first we hear of the cops in this story is when they approach Finney’s sister, who had a dream about a detail of one of the crime scenes and shared it with a victim’s sibling, and around whom they apparently immediately decide to build an entire case. Look, maybe if the film had gone a little deeper in showing us how frantic the police were at this point, how desperate they were for any sort of lead or any hint of an answer to the vanishings happen in their town, this would have scanned a bit more, but as it is – the cops turn up, entrust the entire case into a nine-year-old who apparently has some dreams about CSI files (going as far as to give her their card directly and immediately send an entire armed squadron to a random house with nothing more than a dream she had as the basis), and hope to God nobody asks for their chain of evidence when they actually find the perpetrator.
It also renders the mystery aspect of the movie incredibly uninteresting and stakes-free – procedural aspects wrapped up against a horror backdrop like this can work really well when pulled off right, but there’s no mystery here, no investigation. It’s just a matter of when this little girl is going to think something, which will inevitably turn out to be an explicitly accurate depiction of whatever piece of evidence the cops need next. With Gwen’s psychic abilities so nebulously defined, it really just feels as though we’re politely waiting on the screenwriters to drip-feed us the next bit of information, instead of the characters deducing it.
In fact, the investigative aspect was so poor I initially assumed that the real mystery would revolve around the identity and motivations of the Grabber. Given how focused the marketing for this movie was on the Grabber and Hawke’s performance, and how reticent the film was to give us much about him in his initial appearances. But genuinely, truly, we get nothing: his brother (James Ransome) is a cocaine addict who lives with him, who he apparently loves but doesn’t hesitate to give the ol’ Dick Halloran too as soon as he gets the chance – he has two houses, one that he buries victims in and others where he keeps them when they are alive. He has a dog, I guess? He seems to have a proclivity for Sprite? There are a number of references in The Black Phone to the then-contemporary Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I thought this was a sign that we were going to get a family-focused or perhaps even family-motivated killer who the film attempted to humanize in the same uncomfortable way Tobe Hooper does in his classic, but the Grabber is just a maniac who likes to torture and murder little boys. Why? Not relevant, it seems. If the mystery in this film is not about the act of finding him – which it really can’t be, given there are no obstacles to that end apart from waiting for Gwen to think things – then it should be about who he is.
Which is even more strange when you consider the role of Finney and Gwen’s father in the movie: played by the excellent Jeremy Davis, Terrence, the children’s dad, is actually the person we see committing most violence against children in the movie. In an extended and really unpleasant sequence, he beats his daughter viciously and repeatedly with a belt as a result of her psychic visions, an act which is later referenced as something the Grabber enjoys doing to his victims. There’s a clear parallel there, but what it’s trying to say is not clear enough: are Terrence and the Grabber as bad as each other? Terrence tearfully apologizes to his daughter later in the film, and then to his son when he is finally free – is that enough? Is it not? I have no idea, genuinely, and I am a person who loves to over-read into everything little thing a movie gives me.
The Black Phone is a solid horror movie wrapped up inside one of the most bafflingly awful mystery plots I think I’ve ever seen in a movie as lauded as this. The mystery lacks stakes, setting, and even logic at certain points, and Hawke’s performance is limited by the fact that the Grabber doesn’t really become anything other than a bogeyman in a mask.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via MovieInsider)