Listen: save for Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson can’t write a film for nothin’ (and I attribute Doctor Strange‘s success to the visuals and the control that Marvel had over the subject matter. There were standards to uphold.) Nearly every time I have watched a film written and directed by that man, I end up watching a film with flimsily put together characters who have little to no development or even back story. I end up watching a story that I have already seen a hundred times and with no “spin” to make it stand out, visually or otherwise. The Black Phone, unfortunately, is no exception to that rule.
Based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill (the son of famed horror writer Stephen King), The Black Phone is a narrative that we’ve all seen before. The only thing special in the film is the mask that was made by the legendary Tom Savini. Ethan Hawke’s performance as The Grabber was fine. He clearly drew inspiration from a number of the most well known serial killers in history. There were bits and pieces of people like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer in his performance. Those inspirations, however, did make the performance disjointed, at times.
I liked that the overall premise was that the children who the Grabber had previously killed were there to help the current child, Finney Shaw, played by Mason Thames. They’re there to help him make it out of the house alive, avoiding the mistakes the previous victims had made and picking up where they left off. I enjoyed the supernatural element of it. And, the way it was executed in the film truly reminded me of older movies based on Stephen King stories. Movies like 1989’s Pet Sematary and 1984’s Children of the Corn. The Black Phone felt campy in the same way those films did, while still managing to keep a creepy tone.
Mind if I circle back for a second to writing? Why does Scott Derrickson keep writing characters with little to no back story and then cast James Ransone in the role? I swear, every time I see Ransone in one of these films, his character is barely formed. His character in The Black Phone was a step up from his character in Sinister, though. At least in Black Phone he’s given a name. In Sinister he was just billed as ‘Deputy’. Derrickson seems to use Ransone as comic relief, but the “comedy” always feels so out of place and not needed.
I think I had more questions than answers by the end of that film. What about the children and their abusive father? Am I to believe that nearly losing one of his children was enough to make him not hit his kids or drink heavily ever again? Because I don’t believe that for a second. Would have loved more on Finney’s sister, Gwen (played by Madeleine McGraw), who has supernatural powers that she inherited from her mother according to her father. That’s interesting as hell. Why didn’t we get more of that? The whole thing was a jumbled mess.
The Black Phone was mediocre, at best, honestly. Which bummed me out. There was a lot of buzz around this film and the performances. To say I am disappointed would be an understatement.