by Scott Derrickson The black phone has one hell of a connecting line, which is simple enough to draw one in and appealing enough to hold their attention throughout its 90 minute runtime. Based on a short story by Joe Hill (the accomplished horror writer who made a name for himself in the scene before he was revealed to be the son of Stephen King), the film is about the subject from its title: A black wall rotary telephone, its connecting wires cut, sitting in a basement in a part of the suburbs at some point in the 1980s. It’s the first thing Finney (Madison Thames) sees when he wakes up on a dirty mattress, heaving and bloating in a weird way after having a strange encounter on his way home from school with a man in a top hat who spilled eggs on the floor in front of him and offered to show him a magic trick. It was, of course, a ruse, and the man drugged Finney, leading him to his current predicament. He slowly realizes he’s been kidnapped by “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke), a killer who preys on the boys of this small town, grabbing them from the street and carrying them off to an unknown location. The man wears a mask, sporting either a horrible smile or a terrifying frown, and he alternates between threatening him and telling him he might just let him go.
Almost immediately, Finney starts looking for a way out, but his options are limited: there’s a lonely window just out of reach, covered with bars, and there’s a second room with rolled-up rugs and a toilet, and it looks like it could be completely stuck. But, strangely, the phone starts ringing. The Grabber told him to ignore it, it’s just his imagination, but he can’t help picking up the handset. On the other end of the line is the voice of one of the killer’s victims, and although he cannot remember his name, he does remember the circumstances of his death and who Finney is – he had this crazy arm in the ball game a few weeks ago – and offers the kid some advice. As the days go by, Finney receives more and more calls and additional information: there is a wire hidden in one of the walls that he can use to climb to the top of the window, there is a freezer on the other side of the drywall by the toilet, and one of them tried to dig a hole in a soft spot in the floor. Importantly, he learns that the Grabber can also hear the phone ringing, but he doesn’t want to believe it. So, as Finney plays the Grabber’s stupid games, he begins to use this phenomenon and its help to try to escape.
Screen adaptations of Hill’s work haven’t been fantastic – Alexandre Aja horns is probably the closest to properly nailing the specific tone of his writing, and apparently some of the small-screen works have been correct, like Locke and Key and NOS4A2 – but The black phone takes the best approach yet, in a way other filmmakers have managed to bring his father’s off-brand and minor works to a different medium. Hill, for all of his 800-page tomes and so on, has a similar panache for the simple and incredibly compelling hooks, which usually show best in his short stories and novels, and he is nearly as prolific as his predecessor. Short stories are often more ideal for adaptation than novels, provided the filmmaker and his collaborators can draw enough of their own creativity to extend them into feature film, and Derrickson’s approach here highlights successes and the failures inherent in this. The film seduces when it focuses on the heart of the story: Finney in the basement, trying to escape, haunted by those voices from that strange phone, begging him to improve on their failings, and Derrickson really manages to make it cinematic. In several cases, the ghosts of the dead children are in the room with them, specters speaking to static phone voices, covered in evidence of the hell the Grabber put them through – blood, dirt, etc. – and it’s luscious and intoxicatingly propellant.
Where he struggles is in the made-up subplot about Finney’s sister, Gwen, who has visions shrouded in dreams that provide him with clues and clues to where the Grabber is keeping her brother and his victims, which mostly offers Derrickson an excuse. the 8mm goosebumps he used so well in Claim much less efficiently. The content of these dreams is mostly assorted home movies mixed with occasionally creepy flourishes, like, for example, Hawke standing outside his ramshackle suburban home in a mask and top hat, holding a bunch of black balloons , but he feels typecast in the film so Derrickson can establish a stylistic line through his horror work over the past decade (one wonders if the dispute with Feige that led him to leave Doctor Strange 2 had something to do with him wanting to use the format in this film). But it never yielded a particularly compelling plot, especially when it seems so derived from other King-related works, which Hill has spent much of his writing career trying to challenge. Why make her shine like Danny Torrence when the movie is so solid without him, even if listening to kids swear at cops will always make you laugh? There’s just no need for that padding, which dampens the building panic and great weirdness that’s happening within the confines of this basement.
However, this does not prevent The black phone to work as intended, and what’s left is a solid little horror movie that’s sure to amuse and captivate the most while they watch it. I have a weird feeling it’ll be considered a cult classic in a decade or so if it’s not an instant hit (people are into period horror these days, especially when it’s it’s about kids living in the ’80s, to quote Killing Joke), and it’s a wonderful reminder of what Derrickson can do when working outside of the Marvel world. It’s also further proof that Hawke’s mid-career revival is one of the best among actors of the same age (although people who have seen First reformed Where You’re here really doesn’t need to be convinced of that), and it’s wonderful to see how much he enjoys playing an absolute villain here. His vocal work here is sublime, melodious, plunging octaves almost in the same phrase, marrying beautifully with the physicality of his performance: when stripped of the inherent charisma of his face, he relies on posture to suggest his character’s creepy instability, and it’s delightfully theatrical, playing in a subtle and overt way. If only the movie possessed the same sensibility throughout the runtime, we might be dealing with a modern popcorn horror classic on our hands here. Instead, it’s just a pretty solid little movie, and to be fair, we need a lot of it in the world these days.