Anyone looking to answer this call should know going in that “The Black Phone” is far from elevated horror, or a new horror classic. It’s based on a short story from Joe Hill, who if you weren’t aware is the son of Stephen King, and he uses a lot of the same tropes of child endangerment and the supernatural as dad does, just less satisfyingly. It also leaves director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”, “Dr. Strange”) searching for ways to stretch the story out.
Taking place in North Denver in 1978, the community is experiencing an uptick in child abductions and no one seems to suspect the black truck that periodically creeps along the street. It’s being driven by a man known only as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a supposed magician who wears a creepy demon mask and leaves black balloons as a calling card after each kidnapping.
Finn (Mason Thames) is a 13 year old who lives in the town. He’s your average kid dealing with constant bullying, leading to often brutal and bloody fights at school. He and his kid sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) then come home to an alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who inflicts more abuse, especially on Gwen, who seems to have the same clairvoyant gifts as her mother, who was pushed to suicide by them.
The Grabber soon strikes the family, taking Finn to his dank basement lair that contains little except a black phone The Grabber claims is disconnected. Not so, though. It rings when Finn is alone, allowing him to speak to The Grabber’s dead former victims and they have all sorts of things they want Finn to try in order to escape and ruin The Grabber’s plans.
Which are, what? I’m not exactly sure. Here’s where the story seems to run out of juice. Hawke is given nothing to really do- he’s just a catalyst meant to put the kid in a situation where he has to try a bunch of things that won’t really start working until close to the end of the film. Then we have Gwen, who’s meant to try and figure out gifts that are never truly explained (she just has them), lament the curse of having them, only for them to predictably be of service in the end.
“The Black Phone” deals with things that are fundamentally creepy on their own but the film feels like too much set-up, too much padding, and not nearly enough actual thrills to work. Your horror movie is only as strong as your villain and here this one either just talks in a low-monotone or falls asleep, leading to scenes where Thames has to silently creep around him.
To his credit Thames does what he can with the material while McGraw shows a lot of feistiness with dialogue that oftentimes is just obnoxious. This is not a terrible film- in all it seems to be about the dangers of adults who underestimate children- but then there’s also supernatural elements and all sorts of other things that don’t really amount to a whole lot. In the end it only feels like half a good story, and half filler.