The Black Phone (2022)
Scott Derrickson's film is as close to a Christian Horror film as you can have.
Ethan Hawke's presence in Scott Derrickson's new film "The Black Phone" (after their successful foray into horror together with "Sinister"), is fearsome. The mask that he dons is terrifying - a bizarre mixture of Hellboy's horns, Green Goblin and even Conrad Veidt's rictus grin from The Man Who Laughs. But it is not just the mask. Hawke, one of the most natural actors working today, plays against type in a manic turn.
Too bad he is off-screen most of the time and more the film goes on, the less that we know about him. Of course it is important for villains to have some mystery about them to keep us hooked, but unfortunately, here, Hawke's is the most interesting character. Or let's just say that no character is developed enough for us to want to make them interesting.
As with their last film, Derrickson and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill create rich atmosphere. The details are strong and the specter of The Grabber (as the child kidnapper that haunts the town is called by everyone) hags low and dark on the proceedings.
Finney (Mason Thames) lives with his clairvoyant sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) and their abusive father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Finney's problem, and the film's theme, is stated early on (I am guessing around page 10 of the script), when his school's best answer to all the bullies Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) tells him that he needs to "stand-up for himself". Finney is unable to talk to the girl that he likes, looks for appreciation and support and, of course, gets bullied. His sister, however, is stronger, much more confident and does more to fight all the elements that stand against them.
She also has dreams about the children that have been kidnapped and is able to furnish details that the police have not released to the public. This is a talent that she gets ruthlessly beaten by her father for. As he belts her bottom, Finney can just stare helplessly. Apparently, their mother had similar talents and plagued by these dreams, she killed herself. This is an interesting vein that is completely left unexplored. Did the mother kill herself because the societal pressure was too much for her to bear and they made her doubt herself and her mind or because the world and visions that she inhibited were too terrifying for her to carry on?
Unfortunately, this casual revelation is only used to "explain" Gwen's ability to have those dreams and later, Finney's being the only one who can talk on the eponymous phone.
The most interesting aspect that the filmmakers drop, however, is the exploration of the similarities between Terrence and The Grabber. When we learn that the kidnapper's favourite method of punishment is also a belt, there is an indication that this relationship between the victim and the abuser is much more complex. Maybe, Derrickson is trying to be subtle here but all he is doing is ignoring a more psychologically rich possibility. Once Finney gets kidnapped and gets thrown in The Grabber's rather spacious basement, things turn into a video game mode fast.
There is an old, disconnected black phone that Finney starts receiving calls on. These calls are from the other kids that The Grabber had taken and killed. Different dead kids tell him different methods to escape and he tries them all. The film gets increasingly frustrating as, we as the audience, never learn to anticipate the The Grabber. He comes and goes at anytime leaving Finney to try all the methods freely. That he manages to actually break the bars on a ventilation window is gone unnoticed, unmentioned and hence, unpunished by The Grabber. When Derrickson should be using sharp details to scare and build dread, he goes for cheap jump scares where we are treated to the dead kids appearing out of the blue while having a conversation with Finney.
The film's broad theme is Finney finding courage within himself and its idea of this virtue is distinctively American. Finney, at one point manages to actually escape the house only to be caught again. Hasn't he already found courage then? Or it is necessary for this discovery to be accompanied by violence?
This is never a bad film, but one that squanders every opportunity to be something more than a standard, competent family horror.