The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE BLACK PHONE | The Movie Waffler


the black phone review
An abducted boy receives help from beyond the grave.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone

the black phone poster

The directing and writing duo of Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill reunite with their Sinister leading man Ethan Hawke for an adaptation of Joe Hill's short story The Black Phone. This time Hawke really is a sinister leading man, with that most avuncular of actors thoroughly convincing in a role that sees him cast against type.

Hawke plays "The Grabber," a serial killer who has been abducting young boys in the Denver of 1978. His sixth and latest victim is Finney (Mason Thames), who finds himself locked in a soundproof basement adorned with only a mattress, a small bathroom and a disconnected rotary telephone.

the black phone review

Finney is surprised when the phone inexplicably rings, a phenomenon The Grabber puts down to static electricity. "There's nobody on the other end," he tells the kid. He's wrong. Finney begins receiving phone calls from The Grabber's previous victims, who appear to be stuck in a sort of limbo from which they can only escape by seeing their killer brought to justice. Using a series of cryptic clues from his correspondents in the after-life, Finney plots his escape. Meanwhile his kid sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who inherited her late mother's psychic powers, experiences a series of dreams that seem to hint at Finney's whereabouts.

The Black Phone is set in the 1970s for some very specific reasons. The most obvious is that it eliminates the storytelling inconveniences of cellphones and the internet, but it also takes us back to a time before serial killer John Wayne Gacy had been revealed as a children's entertainer who dressed as a clown, inspiring coulrophobia in subsequent generations of kids. The Grabber is clearly inspired by Gacy – he too is a children's entertainer, though his white-face and black hat visage are far more outwardly sinister, not to mention the black balloons he incorporates into his abduction shtick.

the black phone review

The original short story is penned by the son of Stephen King, whose influence is all over The Black Phone. The Grabber owes as much to Pennywise as to any real life killer, and there are quite a few shots in the film that could have been lifted directly from the recent two-movie adaptation of King's It. With child protagonists battling a monster of sorts, it's easy to see why The Black Phone was greenlit following the success of those movies.

King's stories are known for their depictions of cruelty among children, something that's taken to ridiculous heights here. The kids here are constantly fighting, but in such an over-the-top fashion – all karate kicks and suplex moves – that it has more in common with a professional wrestling bout than a schoolyard brawl. The violence gets improbably vicious, with kids carving each other up with flick knives, bashing heads in with rocks and kicking young girls in the head. I grew up around some pretty rough kids in the '80s, but nobody would dream of striking a girl, let alone giving her a swift boot to the noggin.

The silliness of these scenes detracts from the grimness of the central plot, which really is grim. While the film steers clear of any mention of a sexual nature to The Grabber's crimes, it's impossible to think of him as being motivated in any other way, particularly when he spends so much time with his shirt off, wielding a belt in readiness for his latest round of torture. This level of darkness means The Black Phone can't really be viewed as "fun," but its sillier elements make it impossible to take seriously.

the black phone review

Those sillier elements include a subplot involving The Grabber's amateur detective brother (James Ransone). It's played as broad comedy, which really jars in a movie about child abduction and murder. Then we have Gwen's psychic powers, which the film treats in such a slapdash manner that her final revelation comes off as little more than a storytelling convenience. It's also laughable how much stock the local police put in this little girl's dreams.

It's a shame that there's so much nonsensical clutter in The Black Phone, as in its best moments (most of which occur in the darkness of The Grabber's basement and surrounding home), Derrickson displays a talent for crafting a tense sequence. There's one escape attempt that will have you digging your nails into your armrest. Hawke is genuinely unnerving as the villain, using his physicality and stature to add to the threat he poses to his young potential victim. But those moments are few and far between in a movie that too often plays like a 1970s stranger danger afterschool special on steroids.

The Black Phone is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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