The best (or most disturbing, depending on your perspective) horror movies exploit real-life fears and vulnerabilities of the audience. Trepidation towards apparitions, home-invasions, motherhood, sex, and even exorcisms make up much of the genre’s exploration of our darker id. But then there’s the fear of being a child and the power imbalance that comes with it. That’s director Scott Derrickson’s inspiration for The Black Phone, a dark/twisted tale centering on an occurrence of serial child kidnappings in a Colorado suburb in 1978. The mid-to-late 20th century is when the serial killer became a notorious part of our cultural lexicon, making the 70s scary, especially if you’re a child. But does The Black Phone stick the landing on such an unsettling premise?
Unsettling is the keyword as we’re introduced to young Finney (Mason Thames) and his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) as they traverse chaotic lives at home and school. You wouldn’t guess it at first glance, but Gwen is the tougher of the two siblings. She’s a silver-tongued, no-frills-taking firecracker who spends much of her appearances giving any and everyone a profanity-laced piece of her mind. Her smart mouth usually makes a bad situation worse, but her courageous spirit helps save Finney fend off an assortment of bullies. While Gwen’s fiery personality colors the movie’s energy, it’s Finney’s story that we’re following here. He’s timid and avoids confrontation, often cowering from his abusive father (Jeremy Davies) even as Finney’s anger progressively boils to the surface. Finally, he’s encouraged by one classmate to stick up for himself, as eventually, he’ll have to fight the bullies in his life.
Meanwhile, this quaint little suburb is in a state of panic – there’s been a series of seemingly connected kidnappings of local children. The police have zero leads, which inspires them to seek out Gwen of all people, as word has gone around that she may be having visions that could ultimately solve the case. Unfortunately, it’s not long before we’re introduced to a fearsome vagrant, eventually known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), who targets the neighborhood’s children. Once one of our key characters is abducted, the situation seems hopeless. But the story ends up taking a left turn, pivoting from gritty realism into one that is more fantasy in nature.
At first, The Black Phone seems fascinating. As children, we’re inundated with the knowledge that the world has boogeymen, and it’s our job to avoid those corners of our environment at all costs. The movie puts us squarely into that survival state of mind, especially as the children do not understand the psyche of the adults that wish to harm them. Of course, anyone can relate to this fear, rather you lived in an unsafe neighborhood, or you simply watched an unnerving documentary late at night when you were too young to do so. But The Black Phone has a key problem that eats at its premise. We’re aware that a common complaint of slasher movies, or horror films in general, is that the victims are often too dumb and make decisions that betray your suspension of disbelief. Well, The Black Phone has the inverse problem: the bad guy is a moron.
The Grabber is a deranged psycho who meticulously plans the abduction of his victims, but once he gets more screentime, he just makes bizarre choices that come off more as plot armor for our main character. It’s shrugged off as him giving the protagonist “tests” to see how daring they are, but it would help if the teacher knew the answers to the quiz. For example, he tells us how he put great care into sound-proofing the room where he holds his captives… but later, this buffoon leaves the room unlocked and falls asleep. Yes, bad guys (both real and imaginary) make mistakes that often open up a window of opportunity for their victims. But if the movie is going to try to convince us that the villain is very smart and takes key precautions to get away with their crimes, then this character trait needs to be a little more consistent. Instead, much of The Grabber’s exploits depend on luck rather than their own intellect.
Speaking of luck, it’s quite convenient that we have a couple of detectives that just go along with this idea that a pre-teen girl is having visions that will help them nab a serial killer – you know, that case that they have zero leads on. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the police when they can just break into someone’s home (without a warrant!) based on a dream had by some elementary school kid. What makes this element of the story worse is it doesn’t really have that much impact on the plot. The way things shake out, we would get to the story’s conclusion even without the police’s wild goose chase, in retrospect making it just something for Gwen and the cops to do in order to keep themselves busy.
The film is based on a short story by Joe Hill, the son of author and horror icon Stephen King. King’s stories are famous for combining unsettling dread with magical and surrealist elements, best exemplified in works like The Shining, It, and Pet Sematary. It’s easy to see that influence on his son in the construction of The Black Phone, which lends magical realism to its protagonists as a means to outwit the adults who have all the power but lack the solutions for their children’s problems. There’s something charming about that conceit, even as the film’s execution doesn’t always land. Nonetheless, Finney and Gwen are good characters worth rooting for, brought to life by strong performances, which both may be stars in the making, and it makes it disappointing that they’re not in a better movie.
What ails the movie is that its various parts, while potentially successful storytelling in a vacuum, do not compliment each other. There’s a nastiness to this movie that Derrickson tries to employ, showcasing some realities about child abuse, and boy, do the children in this movie take some beatings, sometimes bloody. You could easily re-name this film – Kids Get Their Ass Kicked: The Movie, for how often this occurs. But at one point, we see a child getting spanked and beat on persistently by an adult. It seems like a scene that goes on for 2 – 4 minutes and is intentionally upsetting. But the plot justification for this scene later falls apart. At the moment, we’re told the child is getting beaten for behavior that the adult wants to stop, but later on, the plot requires the child to repeat this behavior, and the adult amazingly just goes along with it without much fuss. Thus, we betray the serious nature of the prior scene while also handwaving the child abuse.
It showcases how the fantasy elements of the tale do not really serve the realism or vice versa because the movie just does whatever the plot needs to in a given moment, at the expense of character consistency or plot mechanics, leaning heavily into “and then…” as opposed to “therefore…” storytelling. This leaves The Black Phone in a position where the moments that are genuinely scary are few and far between, as the movie suffers from a needlessly complicated screenplay. I appreciate that this is Derrickson’s vision of what it was like being a child in his youth, with the dangers and fears that accompanied it. But the end product is lesser than the parts, a disjointed fable that fails to reach the emotional depth it aims for. It’s (at times) enjoyable in the moment but will wash over you quickly.