The Black Phone (2021)

Quick synopsis: Finney is a young child kidnapped by The Grabber in this adaptation of a Joe Hill short story.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Firestarter, it’s okay if you’ve forgotten, give me a few weeks and I’m going to forget everything about it too. One thing I do remember is thinking that it should have led with the opening credits. This is similar, the actual opening of the film is standard horror movie “develop doomed character” but only really giving them one trait so you don’t really feel too much fear from their death. It feels like it’s there just because “well this is horror movies start, right?”. It introduces you to the main character too, and his relationship with the kid who dies, but both of those could have been developed more naturally throughout the film. It flashbacks and explains the connection between the two characters later on anyway, so not as though you miss much.

In contrast, the opening credits are really well-done. They’re super creepy and disturbing, like a home video which you know ends in tragedy. If the rest of the film was like that I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It just feels a bit……well you can tell it’s adapted from a short story. It doesn’t really have the momentum to carry itself through a full-length film. It feels a bit stop and start so never really gathers enough pace to really be exciting or scary. The idea of a small child being locked in a basement and getting help from the ghosts of previous victims is an intriguing one, but because that doesn’t happen until quite a way into the narrative, the situation never feels as helpless as it actually is. The section of that character in the basement either needs to be longer so we feel his pain and despair, or needs to be shorter so that it’s the final section.

The pacing as a whole is a bit weird, but thankfully the performances are great. There are moments where some of the child actors are slightly weak, but that’s to be expected. Plus, the true star of this is Ethan Hawke. If Johnny Depp turns out to be a genocidal dictator and the industry needs to remake all his films with a different performer, Hawke wouldn’t be a bad shout. He has a dangerous playfulness to him that makes him seem both weirdly endearing but also terrifying. I get why they don’t have him in it that much, if you over-used that character you do risk either watering him down, making him sympathetic, or giving too much information about him away and thus reducing the mystique around him. They could do a slightly better job of building up the legend of The Grabber. The only people who discuss him are the kids. So you don’t really get the idea of a town in fear. Compare this to Halloween Kills, that film truly made Haddonfield feel like a town scared. I know this was the 70’s, and people were slightly more blasé about child safety, but you get the feeling that the parents would be more cautious about the safety of their children when there’s someone going around abducting them.

To end this on a positive, the ending section where al the kids knowledge builds together to create the perfect escape method is a great piece of scriptwriting, it’s very narratively satisfying to see it all come together like it does. Also, when the ghosts first appear the film shows the lives of the children leading up their demise. It’s incredibly simple but effective, instantly providing emotional backstory to what otherwise could be fairly flat characters.

So in summary: not one of the best horror movies you’re likely to see, but one of the most interesting of the last few years.

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