At one point late in The Black Phone, a ghostly kid who has been contacting kidnapping victim Finney (Mason Thames) from beyond the grave stops giving him general advice about how to survive, and starts giving him more specific instructions about how to fight back against his captor. The ghost-kid tells young Finney, before running through some rudimentary physical training, to prepare a particular object to serve as a weapon: “Pack it with dirt, give it some heft.” It’s a brief moment, but weirdly indelible for all the wrong reasons. First, it’s deeply strange guidance, because the basement where Finney is trapped also, by this point in the film, has a bunch of broken glass strewn around. But also, “Give it some heft?” Why does this ghost-kid suddenly talk like a pulp character’s corny inner monologue?
These descriptions may sound like spoilers, but The Black Phone is almost too baffling to spoil. The premise sounds simple: In 1978, kids are disappearing from a suburban neighborhood, and the police haven’t made any headway on locating the perpetrator everyone calls The Grabber (played, from behind a creepy modular mask, by Ethan Hawke). When 13-year-old Finney is taken, held in a mostly-empty basement by this obvious maniac, he begins receiving messages from the Grabber’s past victims via a seemingly disconnected black phone. Through the supernatural static of the afterlife, they attempt to coach him through this nightmare. Perhaps even more direct is the movie’s auxiliary premise: Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) sees glimpses of the abductions in her dreams, and is desperate to use these visions to help her brother. But she’s discouraged from using her powers by her drunken, abusive father (Jeremy Davies), who remembers how his late wife was tortured by similar abilities.
Why the movie has two premises remains a mystery for the ages. Technically, it’s easy enough to trace the horror-yarn lineage: Writer/director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill (who previously worked with Hawke on the creepy Sinister) adapt a short story by Joe Hill—the son of Stephen King, whose work both premises recalls. The film has been painted in dark, saturated tones by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz (who also has horror experience, shooting Ready or Not and the most recent Scream), presumably aiming for something grittier and gnarlier than the comparably sunnier throwback of Stranger Things (which Jutkiewicz has also worked on).
Yet Stranger Things turns out to be an instructive comparison; in its own way, The Black Phone is just as synthetic, and a lot less fun. All of its child abuse, cartoonishly violent bullies, nightmarish imagery, eerie powers and period details feel like they’ve been relentlessly fussed over, even fetishized, as the story heaves under the weight of its overworked conceits. Every decent scare or memorable image—and there are a few throughout—feels as disconnected as the phone, with repetitive scenes of Finney’s frustrations and Gwen’s determination running out what should be an inexorably ticking clock. Every would-be crowdpleasing element feels like a sideshow: The smartmouthed and profane tween girl, the from-nowhere coke-addled comic relief, the crafty plotting against an outlandishly costumed monster of a man. These bits and pieces provide momentary shocks of amusement, but put together they’re just geek-brain dispatches, all accompanied by a smirking question: Ain’t it cool?
The labored phoniness works against everyone in the cast. The young actors have to swing between movie-kid precocity and genuine helplessness, while Hawke struggles mightily to ground a cartoon villain. Davies feels particularly misplaced: His twitchy overacting, here saddled with a wild hairdo and a whispery drawl, is positioned at odd angles with the genuine trauma he’s supposed to inflict as a cruel, broken man. His whole character is a symptom of Derrickson and Cargill’s perpetual inability to discern the difference between harrowing drama and crass exploitation. After a while, their attempt to make a rueful, knowing movie about a rough and unsettling era of childhood dangers starts to feel like a weird kind of nostalgia, conflating their love of classic ’70s horror (kids name-check Texas Chain Saw Massacre more than once) with the idea that they themselves have any command of that milieu, or anything to say about the era in question.
Maybe this vulgar pastiche of bad-old-days signifiers was part of Hill’s original story. The Black Phone certainly feels as if it’s trying to preserve some perceived writerly specialness; it’s torturously overwritten and, at times, overdirected. (One series of shots watches Finney walking down the street, as other characters gradually fade out in the background. But he covers less than a block. Did he take 20 or 30 minutes to travel 200 feet?) Though its actual storytelling is pretty arbitrary, The Black Phone has the emotional simplicity of a children’s film, wearing its grit like makeup. “Pack it with dirt, give it some heft” isn’t just a clunky line. It’s this dark, dumb movie’s advice to itself.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writer: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, Miguel Cazarez Mora
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.