The Black Phone Synopsis: Finney Shaw is a shy but clever 13-year-old boy who’s being held in a soundproof basement by a sadistic, masked killer. When a disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, he soon discovers that he can hear the voices of the murderer’s previous victims — and they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney. Based on a short story of the same name.
Growing up in the late 1970s, Finney tries to go about a normal adolescent lifestyle amidst several child kidnappings in his area. But, when Finney becomes the serial killer’s next victim, he must muster enough strength to fend off his sinister captor in The Black Phone.
Nightmarish thrillers centered around childhood abductions aren’t uncommon for the genre (Prisoners and Gone Baby Gone). Director/Screenwriter Scott Derickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill center The Black Phone as a story of self-belief amidst the loss of adolescent innocence. The Sinister creative team also maintains their core horror edge, drenching their dour material in the aesthetics and unrelenting misery of old-school genre pictures.
The Black Phone is a noble pursuit, but the final product stumbles into a wayward journey down the road of missed opportunities. Derickson and Cargill ultimately bite off more than they can chew in a horror exercise that sinks under its promising conceits.
Diehard fans of gnarly old-school horror films will find something to enjoy here. Derickson remains an auteur versed in the dark allures of haunting horror aesthetics – coating every frame in eerie shadows and drained color pallets in his depiction of a late 1970s canvas. Derickson could craft precisely executed jump scares in his sleep at this point. During each tense encounter, the director maneuvers his claustrophobic framing and edgy score choices with technical aplomb.
Derickson and Cargill also don’t select their setting thoughtlessly. Along with aping the era’s filmmaking thumbprint, the duo firmly entrench The Black Phone in the zeitgeist of its era. Lost innocence, increased childhood abductions, and an explosion of violent cultural products linger as core tenants of late 1970s culture. Viewers can see glimmers of how the bleak narrative could serve as a relevant depiction of adolescents’ grim and oftentimes uncontrollable discovery of humanity’s cruelest implications.
Unfortunately, The Black Phone shows little interest in its meaningful undertones. Derickson and Cargill exhibit unbridled dedication to genre narrative devices – a choice that ultimately undercuts any profound implications the abduction story could possess.
The film seems deathly afraid to address any obvious real-world connotations behind the premise. Instead, Derickson and Cargill spoonfeed viewers a tired rehash of 80s horror plot tropes intermixed with goofy supernatural undertones. I don’t understand why the duo would select such a hard-hitting premise without any interest in what lies beneath the visceral horrors. The film ultimately settles for an inconsequential tale of underdog empowerment, which feels like a gross understatement of the subject’s inherent gravity.
The Black Phone never unnerves viewers as it should. As a horror exercise, the plodding narrative and hackneyed thematic sentiments prevent tensions from reaching a full boil. Finney and his captor’s cat and mouse game eventually morphs into a predictable escapade of routine horror machinations, with neither the narrative nor characters providing a particularly compelling presence to rally behind. Even the usually terrific talents of Ethan Hawke feel wasted here as the actor is stuck portraying a cartoonish interpretation of a menacing serial killer.
Mileage will vary with viewers, but The Black Phone felt underwhelming at every turn for me. The lack of thematic intelligence and original ideas makes this one phone call that only horror diehards want to answer.