The Black Phone movie director: Scott Derrickson
The Black Phone movie cast: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies
The Black Phone movie rating: 2 stars
Nothing amounts to much in The Black Phone. Not a beautiful sibling relationship with so much promise at the start. Not the cloud that hangs over them on account of an abusive, alcoholic father. Not the special powers held by the sister. Not the cruel intentions of the man who abducts young boys. Not the black balloons that seem to be there just to draw attention to writer Joe Hill’s association to father Stephen King, and the red balloons in the latter’s IT. Not even the phone from which the film derives its title.
A strangely arranged film by director Scott Derrickson, The Black Phone is almost graphic in the violence that children unleash on each other, while being timid about the danger posed by the scary clown figure who has been killing them. No, there is no message there either.
The year is 1978. The place is North Denver. Texas Chain Massacre Nightmare is playing in cinemas, and kids are getting into deadly scraps unnoticed by parents or school authorities. Such are the times that a girl’s belting by her father (Davies) doesn’t even get social workers to their doorstep.
Here, in a small neighbourhood, five boys of approximately the same young teenager age have gone missing. Despite the community being obviously close knit, no one has seen anything, nor is anyone bothered enough to keep their children under supervision as a precaution. Police have nothing to go by, till Gwen (an outstanding McGraw) reveals a dream about a black van and balloons — and admits to police that her dreams often are true. Police take her seriously enough to question her twice, but not seriously enough to even search for black vans.
Gwen, who has inherited “the gift” from her mother, is very close to her brother Finney (Thames), who has eyes only for one other person besides her — a girl at school, who too means nothing ultimately.
It’s when Finney too goes missing, that things start getting intense.
Or, so one thinks. Because all you get is a big, boring, strangely structured room where Finney is locked by the man identified as Grabber (Hawke). So pointless is the room that you almost pity Grabber’s pretensions of being a mythical serial killer. Part of the scares lie in who is at the other end when that phone, with no connection, rings.
There are so many subplots left hanging loose throughout that you wonder what all got cut out at the editing table. And you wonder at the filmmaker who thought it made sense to leave out the one actor with the most arresting presence in the film, Gwen, for the most part. And to focus instead on Hawke’s Grabber, whose efforts to be scary with all those twisted hand movements are almost painfully embarrassing.
In that brief prelude where it’s the brother and sister against the world, two spare beings who have to tip-toe around their house to not provoke their father, two children amazingly resilient and bright in the face of this darkness, a girl sobbing and screaming unabashedly when faced with her father’s belt, and later watching TV quietly resting her head on her brother’s shoulder, you feel more scared about their lives, than when the dead come crawling out.