Friday, 14 April 2023

The Black Phone | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Child abduction story dials in supernatural element but avoids calling up fashionably exuberant characters.

The individual whose name graces this ezine liked the horror film The Black Phone so much that he saw it in the theatre twice and almost went back a third time. Hold on – was this film, directed by Scott Derrickson and based on a Joe Hill short story of the same name, that good? Let’s find out.

The year is 1978. A boy named Finney (Mason Thames) and his much rowdier and crasser younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) – she’s the one who isn’t afraid to clobber a bully – are being raised by alcoholic and physically abusive father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Their mother, who had a gift of seeing things in her dreams that Gwen seems to have retained, is gone, and a kidnapper nicknamed the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) is abducting boys in the family’s Denver suburb. Naturally, the Grabber grabs Finney.

Here’s where the story diverges from the typical: while he’s confined in the Grabber’s basement, Finney gets a series of calls on a disconnected black phone mounted on the wall. The callers, who are the villain’s previous victims, offer pointers about how Finney can survive. Meanwhile, Gwen has dreams that may or may not lead the authorities to the Grabber. 

Recent horror productions such as Stranger Things and the remake of It feature child protagonists who are outspoken, brash, funny and in some cases, supremely confident. However, Finney, the boy protagonist of The Black Phone, is much more serious and reserved. He comes across as a thoughtful boy known by his friends for his ability to take a beating and keep getting up. His weakness: he doesn’t fight back. That’s going to be put to the test, of course. 

The film’s biggest strength is Hawke’s portrayal of the menacing villain. The devil-like mask he always wears – sometimes the whole face, other times just the top or the bottom – underscores his unpredictability and his lack of a backstory. Particularly unsettling are the games the Grabber plays with his victim. When he exits the basement, for instance, he deliberately leaves open the door to the stairs and, by implication, to freedom. But it’s not so easy. Furthermore, Hawke’s tone shifts from silly commentary to vivid descriptions of how he’ll punish Finney for being disobedient.  

My biggest gripe with The Black Phone involves the presentation of the ghosts, shown with all their Grabber-inflicted bruises and scars. Their lips move in tandem with their phone voices as they communicate with Finney. Thus, the viewer sees Finney’s predecessors, but he does not. The viewer would have been much more aligned with the protagonist (and the film would have been more frightening) had the filmmakers elected to only focus on the voices and leave out the visuals that add a jarring campiness to an otherwise serious film. Another shortcoming of the ghosts is inconsistency – either give Finney cryptic or straightforward clues, but don’t do both. The film also misses an opportunity to capitalize on parallels between Finney’s father and the Grabber. 

Another observation: much of the film, especially the beginning, feels as if it is moving in slow motion… even a fight between two boys. And except for Gwen, none of the kids shows much enthusiasm. This strangeness, however, oddly adds to the film’s aura by giving it a more authentic vibe. Moreover, its gritty feel underscores its moment in time and creates a sense of creepiness. The film also introduces comic relief in a cocaine-fuelled theorist who thinks he can help the police pinpoint the location of the Grabber. 

This all brings us back to our initial question: is The Black Phone worthy of two trips to the theatre? I’m not sure – I’ll have to watch it again.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

No comments:

Post a Comment