The Boy said, after the movie was over, that he found himself thinking “Hey, this is a lot like a Stephen King story…but a Christian is shown in a sympathetic light.” I informed him that the author, Joe Hill, was Stephen King’s son. “In other words, we just saw a story about an abusive anti-religious alcoholic who beats his children, but I’m sure it’s not autobiographical.”
I kid the King. I hear he’s a real nice guy. Like many celebrities, he’s a good example of why neither politics nor religion should be discussed outside of very narrow spaces.
Anyway, Black Phone? Good movie. One of the screenwriters was wandering around Joe Bob’s Jamboree and seemed like a real cool dude. If I had to pick him out of a lineup, I would’ve gone with C. Robert Cargill but this is why you shouldn’t trust me with a lineup. Since everyone was saying it was the guy who also wrote Sinister and Doctor Strange, it had to have been Scott Derrickson. Who also directed this film after “creative differences” on the set of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
The creative differences probably being that the last thing Marvel Studios wants is creativity.
So, whadda we got here? Kids in the “Stranger Things” era are being kidnapped and killed by a local masked villain known as The Grabber. Our protagonist, who lives at home with his abusive dad and his shining sister, is a wuss who lets his sister get beat, who gets beat up by school gangs, and who generally has a hard time confronting difficult things. Needless to say, he ends up a victim of aforementioned serial kidnapper. His only hope? The vengeful spirits of those who have gone before him, but who are rapidly losing their identities and memories.
Sure we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it…uh…set in Denver in 1978? Probably not?
Originality isn’t really the thing here. There are elements of The Shining, of Carrie, and especially of Silence of the Lambs. I mean, the entire third act feels like the climax of Silence of the Lambs. None of that really matters.
The execution is top-notch. There’s no sin in telling the same story others have told if you do it better, and this is, as the Boy termed it, a “solid thriller”. The pacing is dependable. There’s no reliance on jump scares. The atmosphere is terrific: It’s not dogmatically color-coded in cyan so you know it’s a horror movie. The menace feels very real because it’s not relying on supernatural cues but on the fact that it’s the ’70s and kids just went places and were occasionally kidnapped. The characterization is mostly excellent, occasionally a little type-y just because you’ve got quite a few of them who are both important and have very little screen time in your 100 minute movie.
The worst and most graphic violence in the movie is fights our protagonists have with bullies. Which is plenty violent, don’t get me wrong. But I feel like the movie’s “R” is largely due to the language—which very accurately reflects 1978 playground language, as I recall it.
There’s very little violence involving The Grabber himself. Ethan Hawke is getting a lot of praise here for channeling Ted Levine, and there are elements of Francis Dolarhyde here, though I’m not sure whether it’s more Ralph Fiennes or Tom Noonan. He’s doing exactly what I’d expect Ethan Hawke to do, so I’m not sure what all the ooh-ing and ah-ing is about. I mean, it works, but who was surprised by that? Hawke conveys—without the movie ever having to show, and only exposits through past victims—a sadistic, perverted, self-pitying monster. The movie doesn’t need to show anything because we know what he’s done, broad strokes, and he gives enough hints to be horrifying.
Jeremy Davies, as the abusive father is quite good, treading that line between utterly despicable and utterly pathetic. The little girl, Madeleine McGraw, does a great job with her part, even if it does feel a little…go-girl-ish? I’m going to assume this character will feel fine in a more normal time than we’re currently in. It’s kind of necessary for her to be aggressive because her brother is so passive.
Mason Thames knocks it out of the park as Finney, our hero. He’s passive, which we understand given his environment, and his situation is totally unfair but we for God’s sake want him to stand up for himself and what’s right and all that. Thames manages to keep Finney likable, not just sympathetic, and his character arc is what the movie is all about.
The Boy was not blown away. But he really liked it, as did I. It’s such a simple, uncomplicated story that it almost feels strange to praise it. But then you think about the little details, the great performances and the attention to the story—this isn’t some franchise piece somebody crapped out for a quick buck. It has heart and rewards you, rather than punishes you, for having seen it.