It’s hard to watch The Black Phone without thinking of the oft-repeated Neil Gaiman quote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Most supernatural horror stories featuring child protagonists serve as a metaphor for surviving real-life threats, whether they come in the form of bullying, abuse, assault or violence.
Scott Derrickson’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story has powerful potential in this regard. That potential is strengthened by Derrickson and his writing partner C. Robert Cargill drawing from Derrickson’s own troubled childhood to personalize the story; the film is set in Derrickson’s childhood North Denver neighborhood in the late ‘70s, with specific elements that, according to interviews, echo the director’s violent upbringing. Frustratingly, potential is all Derrickson’s movie has, as it’s stymied by poor scripting and awkward execution.
The Black Phone follows middle schooler Finney (Mason Thames) as he tries to survive The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a pedophilic serial killer. Even before his abduction, Finney’s life is rough. He and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) suffer regular beatings from their volatile alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies). Finney gets bullied at school, and his friends keep becoming “missing child” notices stapled to neighborhood telephone poles.
When Finney becomes The Grabber’s next target, he discovers a few advantages that improve his odds of escaping the killer’s soundproof basement. One is Gwen, who has visions that help her identify The Grabber’s hideout. Another is the disconnected black phone of the title, through which the unquiet spirits of The Grabber’s past victims speak to him. Finney’s biggest resource, however, is his own natural resilience.
The Black Phone has strong thematic resonance (not to mention unfortunate relevance) as a story about a kid enduring unthinkable trauma, and the hidden reserves of emotional strength that make such endurance possible. However, the movie’s mechanics are so strangely assembled that they undermine the entire enterprise; it’s more likely to leave audiences howling about what it does wrong rather than connecting with what it gets right.
Derrickson and Cargill do some admirable worldbuilding early on, but it’s hobbled by the movie’s uneven ensemble. Outside Thames, Hawke and Davies, the movie’s supporting performances range from school-play stilted to outright bizarre. The blame for some of this lies with the dialogue which, when not belonging to the main characters, verges on robotic. The storytelling logic also breaks down at points, as in the moments (plural!) where The Grabber leaves Finney with potential weapons that the kid, unbelievably, never thinks to use.
As The Grabber, Hawke exudes credible menace. This is a real feat, since he’s doing most of his acting behind a creepy mask. However, he’s far from the John Wayne Gacy-esque character Hill created. It’s good for artists to freely adapt their source material, but in this case it requires a lot of extra, evident effort to make Hawke a worthy boogeyman. It’s not an inspired casting choice as much as it’s a weird one. Even James Ransone, who pops up here as a cokehead conspiracy theorist, is more appropriately squirrely.
The Black Phone draws from a tradition of great horror storytelling about the actual horrors of childhood. Stephen King—Hill’s father and the current reigning champ of that subgenre—even described Derrickson’s movie as “Stand By Me in Hell.” That intention is certainly present in Derrickson’s film, but King’s comment also points out what keeps The Black Phone from hitting the way it could. Stand By Me’s performances and script feel lived-in and rich without giving much exposition. It’s effortless. The Black Phone is all visible effort, and the results aren’t up to that established standard.
“The Black Phone” is in theaters Friday.