‘The Black Phone’ Review: The Dead Have Your Number
Scott Derrickson’s “Black Phone” is more moving than scary, and is less of a horror movie than a ghost story in adulthood. Instead of gout and growing horror, this delightful adaptation of Joe Hill’s 2005 short story has an almost contemplative tone, a tone that drains its well-known horror tropes – a masked psychopath, communications from beyond the grave – from much of their coldness.
However, the film’s low goosebumps figure is far from devastating. The action takes place in a small town in Colorado in the 1970s, and is about 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), a skilled baseball pitcher burdened by a dead mother, school bullies and a violent, alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies). An early lecture by a new friend (a charismatic Miguel Cazarez Mora) about striking back will prove to be foresighted when Finney becomes the latest victim of The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a clown-like magician and the abductor of several neighborhood boys.
While light on horror and short on detail (The Grabber is a generic, slightly comical villain with an unexplored psychopathology), “The Black Phone” is more successful as a celebration of youthful resilience. While Finney disappears into a soundproof cement dungeon, his resilient little sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw, a prominent one), uses the psychic gifts she inherited from her mother to find him. Finney also has help from the killer’s former victims, who call him on the ancient rotary telephone on the wall above his bed, not deterred by the fact that it has long been disconnected.
Derrickson (who co-wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill) revisits elements from his own childhood and adolescence, evoking a time when Ted Bundy was on the news and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was on the drive-in. The film’s images have a soft, antique glaze that strengthens the nostalgic mood while softening the fear. (Compare, for example, Finney’s kidnapping with Georgie’s abduction in the 2017 chiller “It”: both have balloons and a masked monster, but only one is scary.) It does not help that Hawke is stranded in a character whose torture repertoire consists mainly of elaborate hand gestures .
Leaning heavily into the well-known narrative obsessions of Hill’s father, Stephen King – brave children, fearless parents, scary clowns and their accessories – “The Black Phone” inevitably feels distracted. But the young actors are appealing, the setting is well imagined and the fear of adolescence is at the center. For most of us, these worries were more than enough to provoke the tremors.
The black phone
Rated R for bloody revelations and blasphemous words. Playing time: 1 hour 42 minutes. At the cinema.