Friday, June 24, 2022


There’s something particularly unseemly about a horror movie that dredges up deeply upsetting imagery and ideas only to let them wither without a scare in sight. I don’t mind, and even sometimes love, when this genre can be nasty, lascivious, mean-spirited. I can even excuse a poorly developed horror picture if it hits the right marks with enough pizazz. But to want us to care about the most vulnerable among us, in a grindingly simple scenario jerry-rigged with convenient outs and lazy logic to maximize syrupy sentiment over their pain, was too much for me. The Black Phone is unsuccessful, not because it’s too intense, but because it doesn’t know what to do with its bungled intensity. It should be better, given its potentially high-voltage concept. The movie traffics in imagery of brutally murdered children and an unfortunate mincing menace of a killer, and fumbles making from it frights of any sort, fruitful, frivolous, or at all.

It’s about a 13-year-old boy (a capable Mason Thames) who is abducted off his suburban street by a mysterious masked figure known around town as The Grabber. We’ve seen he drives a rattling black van, lurks in a billowy magicians’ outfit holding black balloons, and stares out of a devilishly grinning death head mask. (That it’s sometimes a frowning mask is a neat subtle touch that proves he has an underutilized flair for the dramatic.) The bulk of the movie finds the kid locked in a basement where a disconnected black phone occasionally rings with the ghostly voices of the kidnapper’s previous victims. (This is totally a Stephen King-like blend of childlike whimsy, suburban danger, and quotidian drama—ironic since C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay is based on a short story by King’s son, Joe Hill.) That should be haunting stuff, but director Scott Derrickson, who can certainly go for the throat, like with his career-best ghostly-snuff-film chiller Sinister, is here too much of a sentimentalist to let the unsettling ideas surface with any snap or bite. It’s ultimately as wispy and uninterrogated as the villain himself, played by Ethan Hawke with such vivid mystery that it’s a deflation to realize that he’s hardly a character at all. He’s just an obstacle in a movie where everything is exactly as simple as it appears.

The movie becomes a plain self-actualization parable wrapped in a simple A to B escape room mystery box, with each call giving the boy new objects and strategies to plot escape while his captor lurks around as a malevolent, but distant, presence. There’s also a queasy equivalence drawn between this criminal and the boy’s drunken abusive father (Jeremy Davies), with both eagerly using a belt as a whip. He goes from a home trapped in cycles of abuse to being literally trapped by a far worse figure of danger. This unsteady metaphor is further elaborated by the way the boy has a kind of psychic connection with his sister (Madeline McGraw). Her dreams seem to come true, and she prays for clues in her visions to save her brother. (It’s an excuse for fuzzy, fleeting flashbacks to the other victims from the sister’s perspective, a crass juicing of the underdeveloped story.) These twinned ideas of children in danger wobble with a melancholy that never quite activates. So it becomes a movie about a broken home and growing up, but shot through with a kind of lust for redemptive violence that doesn’t resolve well. We’re just waiting around until the dead boys drop enough hints for our lead to not just escape when he has the chance, but linger long enough to snap The Grabber’s neck, too. It’s sick, and not in a good way. It uses the deaths of children as mere impetus for a coming-of-age metaphor about responsibility for a final boy, and draws the deadening conclusion that an ability to create violence of your own—“standing up for yourself”—is a justifiable, and maybe even necessary, part of growing up. Now that’s scary.

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