The Black Phone (2021)


I saw the trailer for The Black Phone in the theater at some point.  I don't remember what movie it might have been seeing; possibly Halloween Kills, as this would have been rather appropriate for it, and originally this was supposed to come out in February 2022.  I didn't pay much attention because the trailer didn't impress me.  I thought it looked like just another serial killer film with a little bit of the supernatural thrown in.  Director Scott Derrickson is hit or miss, and it's been a long time since I've gone out of my way to watch something with a masked killer.

Apparently I was wrong to dismiss it so readily, because good preview showings resulted in The Black Phone being pushed forward to release in June, which is during blockbuster season, and 2022 is the first year since the pandemic closed everything down that a summer season has really meant something. The movie was successful, and a number of people whose opinions I respect started raving about it.  After all, it is from a short story by Joe Hill, and I really should start checking out more of his stuff now that his dad is starting to slow down. 

Finney (Mason Thames) is attending a junior high school in North Denver, Colorado, in 1979.  His younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) also attends, and she often appears to be the more outspoken of the two.  Finney finds himself bullied constantly, although he finds a friend in Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who helps keep the bullies at bay.  That is, until Robin becomes the latest child to disappear in a series of kidnappings happening in the neighborhood attributed to a mysterious man nicknamed the Grabber (Ethan Hawke).  

Finney and Gwen do not have the best homelife either, with an abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) that becomes even more outraged when the police start asking Gwen about how she knows details about the crimes that were not reported in the papers.  It turns out she sometimes has prophetic dreams, and recently those dreams have been about the Grabber.  When Finney becomes a victim himself he is sure that he will die soon, but then a disconnected phone in the room he is kept in begins to ring.  He is soon receiving advice from the other boys that have died there on how to possibly survive, while Gwen's dreams become even more detailed as she hopes to find her brother alive. 

Ethan Hawke's performance is rather good.  I was afraid it was going to be a lot of hammy overacting in an attempt to be creepy from what I had seen in the trailer, but he comes across as genuinely creepy.  He has that false niceness about him that automatically makes him hard to trust, and he is pretty much everything I was told to yell, kick and scream at if ever I was asked to get in a van back in 1979.  While his masks are definitely there to intimidate, the Grabber obviously expects the boys to behave in a certain way so he can have an excuse to murder them.  While there is an explanation of his methods there is never one of his motives.  It was refreshing just to get someone who was that evil without having a huge exposition dump to explain their history.

Mason Thames reminded me of A. Michael Baldwin from Phantasm.  He has that same look to him as well as much of the same resourcefulness that the character of Michael did in that movie, so I'm quite sure this was a reference that Derrickson intended that went over a lot of viewers' heads.  What struck me is that, through most of it, his reactions were quite real.  His complete hopelessness at times while he contemplated his fate is much more recognizable that the stoic defense many people imagine they would have in a situation like that.  He also channels much of that impotent rage of a guy at that age, surrounded by people bigger and stronger than him - a number of them adults or authority figures - that see him as a punching bag.  Unfortunately this reality breaks down a bit at the end, but that's not Thames's fault.

Where the movie does faulter is on the supernatural end of things.  The idea of the children calling Mason over the phone from wherever their spirits is great, and at first it works.  What doesn't is seeing the ghost children.  They are the typical modern Blumhouse ghosts, so it undercuts the emotional heft of hearing just a disembodied voice on a disconnected phone.  At that point it's becoming an effects film, something that it didn't need.  There are flashbacks shown of the boys' lives and how they became victims of the Grabber, all of which are much more effective than seeing their battered spirits.  It adds nothing to the movie, other than Derrickson thinking a visual cue was needed, when voices and montage was enough. 

Madeleine McGraw is another bright spot as Finney's tough sister, and her dreams and role in finding him are not just left as an afterthought.  I thought the police too easily believed her, but then it seems like a lot of films from Blumhouse share somewhat of a universe in which the paranormal is taken for granted.  Still, she was kept grounded the whole time, suffering her father's rage for her abilities while reacting to them in a completely confused manner like any child would.  

It is why, despite some faults that include some terrible acting on Jeremy Davies's part, I liked this film much more than I thought I would.  It definitely did not make me nostalgic for my childhood - I'm too much of a realist for that - but it reminded me of how much one overcomes at that period of life, even if we don't have to deal with a face-to-face encounter with a child murderer.  I am happy, however, to say that I got this one all wrong. 

The Black Phone (2021)
Time: 103 minutes
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke
Director: Scott Derrickson 

 

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