A gritty exploration of “stranger danger” paranoia, Scott Derrickson’s latest is captivating, if uneven
As a child of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, I was blasted with a recurring, often terrifying message: Don’t trust strangers. A concentrated and somewhat hyper-inflated concern for “stranger danger” abductions of children lead to a full assault of PSAs, in-school lessons, and general panic that anyone who hung around a school for too long was of grave concern. Even today, I refer to windowless, nondescript vehicles driving down the street as “kidnapper vans.” It is a fear that was ingrained in me at a young age: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t trust strangers, and never ever get into a vehicle with a stranger, because you have no idea what could happen.
This panic around strangers and their inherent unknowable menace is the central horror of The Black Phone, a new film from Scott Derrickson. Based on a short story by Joe Hill, the constrained horror pushes past the fear of the stranger and takes the viewer directly into the shoes of the abducted, imagining what lies beyond the trip in the “kidnapper van.” However, because this is a Joe Hill story (the son of horror icon Stephen King and an accomplished horror and fantasy author in his own right), the menace pushes past the mundane into the mystical and unknowable. There is a version of this story that is pure terror, but the fantastic underpinnings push it further into fable. As a result, its strengths are sometimes lost in the larger noise of elements that seem primarily there to give the story more of a sense of a world; unfortunately, they pull away from the central strengths of the story they are trying to tell.
As is necessary in every contemporary horror review, it is worth mentioning that The Black Phone is primarily concerned with the menace and implication of horror than with its actual depiction. This could be reduced to the movie having less “scares per minute,” preferring to string the viewer along in the potential and suggestion of endangerment rather than the actual execution. Which is all a very complicated way of saying that The Black Phone might frustrate a certain section of horror film purists. At its heart, The Black Phone isn’t a horror movie, or even an “elevated” horror movie. It’s a prison escape film told through the lens of magical realism.
The film centers on Finney (Mason Thames), a quiet teen who is terrified both of school bullies and his alcoholic, abusive father. Finney’s quiet suburban Colorado town has been upended by a string of child abductions, all teen boys who have been taken by an unknown assailant known only by the unimaginative title of “the Grabber” (Ethan Hawke.) Once we get our grounding of what Finney’s world is like (running from bullies, being shy around girls, protecting his sister Gwen), the Grabber takes Finney and whisks him off to his secluded basement lair. What precisely the Grabber—always wearing different variants of a mask resembling a Japanese oni—wants with Finney is unclear, but it’s safe to assume it isn’t anything good.
Thus enters the titular black phone, a disconnected rotary wall phone in the basement that serves as a connection point between Finney and the Grabber’s previous victims. Through talking to these victims, Finney is able to learn vague facts about their time in the Grabber’s basement and slowly develop a means of escape. Thus comes the central thrust of the film: Finney needs to get out, he doesn’t know how long he has, and his only help are confused, barely coherent ghosts.
This lane of the film plays out flawlessly. There is something of a guessing game in the set-up, as each ghost gives Finney new clues to pull from and the viewer is constantly guessing how they will eventually connect. Suffice to say, the resolution of Finney’s escape attempts rewards this process, with plot points and new revelations every step of the way paying out and rewarding our close attention. It’s the sort of contained, meticulous plotting that makes the viewer feel smart, but never quite smarter than the movie, as it still has an element of surprise but doesn’t rely on a convoluted twist to trick you.
It also helps that both Thame and Hawke are dialed into their performances, Thames as the terrified young person who is just trying to survive every kid’s worst nightmare and Hawke as the embodiment of that nightmare. Hawke’s character is never given a name; he is just the Grabber, always masked, always unknowable. He exists as a manifestation of the very idea of stranger danger, someone who has merciless, sadistic plans for his victims with little sense of motive or driving intention. He is just pure evil—not in any metaphysical or elevated sense, but rather an almost animalistic cruelty and curiosity. He keeps telling Finney that he is planning to let him go, that he doesn’t want to hurt him. But you can see in his eyes (the only part of his face constantly visible) that he has no such intention. He is less compelling than repellant. There is nothing fun about the Grabber: He simply must be escaped, and isn’t given enough interiority (intentionally, one presumes) to be anything more than a seemingly inescapable obstacle.
The fact that all of the stuff in the basement works so well is perhaps one reason why the actions outside of the basement are frustrating. Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) has seemingly prophetic dreams, able to see things that she would have no way of knowing otherwise. This includes unpublished details of the Grabber’s previous abductions, which leads the police to interview Gwen for their investigation. Gwen is a firecracker of a character, armed with a potty mouth and bursting with fierce bravery, portrayed with game puckishness by McGraw.
Which is why it’s such a shame that her storyline is something of a dead end and feels like one element too much in a story that isn’t looking for more complexity. Even outside of Hill’s proximity to his father’s work, Gwen feels like a rehash of Danny from The Shining, a preternaturally gifted young person whose power gives them insight beyond their understanding. But Gwen’s journey mostly parallels her brother’s and doesn’t intersect with it. It is probably a testament to the meticulous plotting of Finney’s story that Gwen’s falters by comparison, not because it’s bad per se, but because it feels auxiliary.
The other weight on the film is that it relies on a sizeable young cast, to differing levels of effect. Thames and McGraw are locked into the tone the film needs, but some of the support surrounding them is shakier, giving the sort of stiff, clipped acting that grinds any scene to a halt. The worst offender is Miguel Cazarez Mora as Robin, whose delivery in a pivotal emotional scene early in the film is thuddingly dull and flat. I try not to blame young actors for not hitting their marks (especially as in the case of Mora, where it is their first time onscreen), but Derrickson as a director has to step up and find a way to assist his young cast to elevate beyond what ended up in the film.
This is ultimately quibbles, however, as the majority of the film weighs on the shoulders of Hawke and Thames, and they both perform admirably. Derrickson is similarly skilled at maintaining a gritty, grimy atmosphere that sells the fear that Finney finds himself locked within and also reflects the late ‘70s pseudo-exploitation visual language. The use of scratched and worn film stock (or at least the illusion thereof) provides a necessary film language to communicate to the viewer the level of unsavoriness, and provides a necessary edge. It is that griminess that grounds much of the dread and makes The Black Phone feel like a very special object at times. It just makes those rougher edges stand out that much more.