One of the surprising hits of 2022 has been Scott Derrickson’s ‘The Black Phone’ a new Blumhouse horror flick based on the short story with the same name written by Joe Hill. It follows Finney, a young teen who has been abducted by a serial child killer titled ‘The Grabber’. Once he wakes up in a soundproofed basement, he finds out that he can communicate with The Grabber’s past victims via an oddly placed, vintage black phone. With a concept like that, this movie was one that I was genuinely excited to see, Blumhouse is a hit or miss but I felt like this was an easy one to pull off, I mean Ethan Hawke is playing the villain, it would be hard to mess that one up and uhhh… somehow they did.
major spoilers for ‘The Black Phone’ are featured in this review.
Watching this in the theatre with one of my best friends was super fun. The screening had a good amount of people in it as well, mostly teens actually. It’s funny because with the pleasant surprise that this movie was set in 1978, it reminded me of that episode of ‘That ’70s Show’ where Eric and the group go watch ‘The Omen’ in a drive-in theatre. Anyways no matter how fun the experience was, I couldn’t help but question the movie’s choices many times while watching it. We both came out a bit torn on how to feel about it, we settled on it being a good movie with a weird ending. To tell you the truth, had I not wanted to review this movie, I would’ve never thought about it again. It’s actually surprising to me, how well this movie is being received because it’s actually kind of a mess. To make sure that my gripes with the movie were the movie’s fault, I went ahead and actually read the original short story. Just as I thought, the movie just decided to be problematic and in so many ways too.
While the source material was quite short, there was still definitely a ton of potential for growth, world-building and character-building. To give the movie some credit, it definitely improved and created a lot of inventive elements from that incredible mask, the late seventies setting, the Grabber’s brother as a character and honestly most of the climax at the end. However, it also opened up a lot of other things that were just incredibly unnecessary, especially because the plot here is so half-assed. Even with a 103-minute runtime, ‘The Black Phone’ still manages to have loose ends and incredible vague moments that could’ve made for some genuinely intriguing additions. It’s actually quite frustrating because the movie presents many ideas that weren’t present in the short story and they allude to them so vaguely that it would’ve been better off not being mentioned at all. The addition of the Grabber’s mask is so inventive and adds a lot to the character, however, they hint that his connection to it is a symbol of possible schizophrenia or mental illness because when Finney takes it off in the third act, he goes insane. He even supports this by claiming that he did not kill the other children, it was someone else. That being said, the movie never, ever goes anywhere with this concept. This happens two other times when they change Finney and Gwen’s father to an abusive alcoholic that the movie tries to pathetically redeem by the end and Gwen’s entire psychic abilities which the movie lazily explains as being inherited from their mother whom we never actually see.
Apart from that, this movie is also quite stupid which I know isn’t a new thing for horror but this was just infuriating at times. The original short story mentioned that before Finney was kidnapped, the Grabber was on quite a hiatus, so much so that the town thought him dead hence why Finney didn’t think much of a man with a black van. In this movie, however, he kidnapped at least three other boys before Finney just days before. His presence loomed over the town and yet when this mysterious black van shows up with black balloons coming out of it, Finney decides to explore and obviously gets kidnapped easily, not to mention in broad daylight near people. He arrives at the basement, Ethan Hawke starts amping up the creep factor by a ton and then leaves. In the short story, the basement was described as a smaller room with just a phone, a window, a mattress and a toilet. Here he has carpets, and wire not to mention a toilet tank cover that he only uses to put a hole in the wall. I’m pretty sure it was a much more solid, hard-hitting weapon than a phone but I get it, symbolism! Not to mention the one time I actually let out an audible grunt of frustration when a literal dead spirit of a past victim told Finney not to go up the stairs because it’s a trap and he goes anyway. I had to put my popcorn down guys.
It’s also quite disappointing just how not scary this was, the tension was cut so many times either by an editing choice, frustrating stupid decisions or the worst case, playing ‘Fox On The Run’ in a horror movie which automatically removes any tension built up till now and it’s even worse considering it’s in the third act. Again, all of this being said, this is still well-made to a point, it’s a hit or miss visually with a stellar intro which was actually very eerie, easily one of my favourite parts of the movie but then they have the sister running out dramatically out of a house and the background isn’t moving. I have to shout out the score by Mark Korven who really amped up the personality of a scene many times. It was impossible not to notice the score and I mean that in a great way. The cast does the most with what they are given. Ethan Hawke was great as the Grabber however it’s no secret that a more detailed performance lies somewhere with a much better script. Mason Thames was great as Finney, I just couldn’t care less about his character especially when he was that stupid. The same goes for McGraw whose performance gets undercut by some lousy jokes in the script that make for some awkward moments but other than that she was great. Also James Ransone was just a delight to see, his character was one of the few elements this movie expanded on properly.
Overall, ‘The Black Phone’ is just fine, it’s not horrible and it’s definitely nowhere near as good as some of the other horror releases so far this year. The clashing tones, weird editing and script choices took away from what could’ve been a horrifying movie. I think the movie expanded on a couple elements very well and in return enhanced the original story but then I would also say the story was more cohesive tonally and had a firm grip on what it wanted to be. There is definitely a great movie somewhere in there, it’s just sadly not the final product.
‘The Black Phone’ is in theatres now.