Hollywood movies

‘The Black Phone’ review: Sorry, wrong number

Ryan Oquiza

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

‘The Black Phone’ review: Sorry, wrong number

'THE BLACK PHONE.' Mason Thames stars in the horror-thriller.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Ethan Hawke attempts to scare in a straightforward serial killer nightmare that is about as satisfying as a one-minute payphone call

Surely it’s not a spoiler to mention that there’s a black phone in this film, and one of the key plot points is that the lead kid, Finney (Mason Thames), must use it to communicate with someone (because, duh). Later on, he realizes that the phone can do other things. It can warp its own physical matter, serve as a bridge to another spiritual realm, and can sure as hell function as a sturdy weapon.

At one point, the film almost deceptively convinced me that the phone had a deeper meaning. I began to think to myself, “What is the significance of this phone?” “Is this phone a metaphor for something?” and “Why is the black phone… black?” But, as the film unraveled and tied up its loose threads, it became crystal clear that the phone was just a phone – an ordinary, unremarkable, and unimpressive phone.

That’s a microcosm of how I felt about this film. It led me to think that there was something more, that it’s deeper than it’s letting on, but in reality, there’s nothing to it. Based on a short story by Joe Hill, The Black Phone is a horror film that attempts to portray the pervasiveness of violence both in public and private spaces and how it corrodes innocence and vitiates humanity. 

The principal word here is “attempt” since, combined with everything else, the acting, plotting, and editing, there’s little to see accomplished in the finished product.

Set in 1978, Finney and his sibling Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) face an unforgiving world at a young age. Their father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), is abusive and alcoholic. The town’s school children are all violent pathological bullies, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a serial killer named The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) on the loose. Pretty soon, children are kidnapped and never heard from again once a black van arrives on the scene.

In this nondescript Denver suburb, there are only three things we know: The police are incompetent, almost every child beats each other up, and there is a masked kidnapper obsessed with masks and black balloons. So why do certain reviewers praise this film for its distinct “world-building” and for subverting “Spielbergian tropes”? Did I watch the same film? 

There is a lack of compositional variety in this film, an almost artificial production design that betrays its horror, and a clutter of stripped-down acting that fails to generate any sense of urgency. If that is subversion, then Silence of the Lambs and other serial killer films must be put to shame.

Director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill are definitely in their comfort zone when it comes to horror. Derrickson, the director of the first Doctor Strange and the underrated 2012 horror film Sinister, also starring Ethan Hawke, mentioned how making this film was his way of reckoning with his childhood trauma and “channel[ling] that into something positive.” That experience undoubtedly factors in the direction of Finney, who likely serves as Derrickson’s stand-in. He’s characterized as someone who loves old horror films and references ’70s R-rated classics to his friends. The film would like to suggest that all this kid truly wants is to talk to his crush, leading to a tonal whiplash that masquerades as a neat conclusion when, in reality, it diminishes the terror that came before. 

Perhaps, the film would have benefitted if Derrickson had told this story from another perspective. Gwen, the psychic kid who gets visions of the previously kidnapped children, is the film’s star. She’s clever, sassy, and manages to steal every scene she’s in. Putting the spotlight on her would make this film more of a mystery instead of a Pennywise hostage situation. This is not to say the single-location horror concept was a bad idea, but a limited set is only as strong as the characters and story placed inside of it. 

This new perspective would have centered the film’s focus since, as currently constructed, it wasn’t sure how to juggle its various horror elements. Children getting kidnapped by serial killers is already a primal fear for many. John Wayne Gacy, who was the inspiration for The Grabber (and many other serial killers in pop culture), captured the collective fear of parents and children alike due to the transgressive and uncanny profile of an unassuming clown who turns out to be a serial killer. That alone should be scary and intimidating. But, for some reason, the film concentrates its scares on the supernatural rather than trusting its already disturbing realism. 

This mix-up of horror subgenres messes up the tone and how characters react to terrifying things. Is this supposed to be a surreal nightmare? A gritty serial killer mystery? Or a supernatural haunting? I have no idea, and the film is none the wiser. There’s a great scare located midway in the film where the camera pans to reveal the bloodied corpse of someone, and while I was startled, the actual child in the scene barely moved an inch. I don’t scare easily (I think), but if I were in that scene, seeing that would at least elicit a reaction from me. Likewise, Finney’s interactions with The Grabber share this problem. Not once did I sense any intimidation or peril coming out of that kid for two-thirds of the film. But then, in another scene where Finney watches an old horror film with stodgy effects, he gets scared out of his mind. 

Maybe it’s because violence is so pervasive in their environment that characters are already numb to cruelty. You can be scared of some things more than other things, after all. Though compared to related films featuring children who go up against clown-like figures (the It franchise), there’s a great deal of attention placed on parallelizing the fear gained from, say, an abusive father and the fear derived from a giant spider. There’s always a solid throughline connecting children’s anguish and torment in better films. It shows how there isn’t just one face of terror; there are many of them. It makes conquering the demons and monsters all the more satisfying because it means they can also vanquish the torment they experience at home. 

The Black Phone doesn’t think that far and settles for a cheap message. In the wake of a near-death experience, Finney discovers the importance of confidence and assertiveness. I discovered boredom and indifference. – Rappler.com

The Black Phone is now showing at Philippine cinemas

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Face, Head, Person


Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.