Black Phone isn’t scary overall, but it has enough offerings to make it an engaging missing kids story.
On his way home in a 1978 Denver suburb, Finney gets kidnapped by a man in a black van and wakes up in a soundproof basement. It’s “The Grabber”, a notorious child abductor with four victims and counting. But this time around something is different – Finney answers the disconnected black rotary phone on the wall and hears a familiar voice on the other end.
It’s a nifty conceit – the previous victims of a serial killer help the latest one escape their fate. The rest of the movie has the staple elements of horror – a killer with a creepy mask, murdered kids, and cryptic voices from beyond the grave – but this what-if makes for an interesting plot device.
Director Scott Derickson crafts an effective chilling atmosphere, well-placed jump scares, and creepy horror staging that will keep you engaged. In one memorable scene, Finney gets a crucial clue through a genuinely horrifying apparition in a corner of his dingy prison.
This is supported by great acting all around. The sibling relationship between the quiet Finney and his tough little sister Gwen is well-written that you’ll root for them in a time when kids have to defeat their bullies in the playground, deal with dismissive adults, and navigate prevalent child abuse.
While the best parts of this film will keep you engaged, overall it leaves much to be desired because of how the story is told.
While Ethan Hawke is convincing as a psychopath with a kabuki mask and a fittingly inflected voice, the movie doesn’t explore the dynamic between this low-concept murderer and his prey. He patiently waits for Finney to play the “game” giving the kid ample time to figure out the puzzle-like pieces of hints from his victims.
Maybe he’s just really confident? so confident that when Finney manages to pop off the steel bars from the window, he makes no comment on it. Details and contrivances aside, the suspense and tension from Finney’s attempts get interrupted by a revolving door of subplots.
They’re thrown into to pad the story – the clairvoyant sister with psychic dreams, a coked-up amateur sleuth that’s onto something, and two desperate cops resorting to the supernatural for answers. The movie inevitably has no time for these potential ideas.
Black Phone goes on a straightforward path with no twists and turns, ending on an uplifting note – our failures still play a role in the grand scheme of things. Despite its dark subject, it’s individual parts are scarier than its whole.
This movie won’t offer much for hardcore horror fans and those who expected Hawke’s latest turn in villainy to do something interesting, but it’s enough for people who want something as spooky as an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” (well most of it anyway because of you know what).
The Black Phone
Black Phone is a straightforward horror with few scares, but its emotional story and noteworthy acting make it a watchable missing kids tale.