The Black Phone checks many horror boxes but ends up being more bleak than scary

Like other Joe Hill works (as well as those of his father, Stephen King), the movie’s repetitive exploration of childhood as a microcosm gets old quickly, but Ethan Hawke manages to pull it all together.

Life sucks for the young Finney Shaw (Mason Thames). It’s the late 1970s, and everything is dark and brown. His home life involves walking on eggshells around his abusive, alcoholic father. At school, he’s regularly bullied by other kids. On top of that, young boys in town are being abducted by a suspected serial killer. By the end of the first act of Black Phone, the latest film directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister), Finney will have been pulled into a dark van by a man in a terrifying mask. 

Based on a short story by Joe Hill, Black Phone leans into the brutality of childhood. Not shying away from the petty insults and the everyday violence of that era, long before Finney finds himself locked in a basement by a sadistic killer, he’s in a state of constant destabilizing uncertainty. Life is randomly cruel and consistently violent. When the only other kid in the neighbourhood who watches out for him is abducted, Finney is also confronted with the idea that strength and kindness won’t get you anywhere. We’re all ripe for the picking against the overwhelming brutality of ego and desire. 

Despite some welcome comedic overtures, the unrelenting nature of the film gets tiring. Like other Joe Hill works (as well as those of his father, Stephen King), the movie’s repetitive exploration of childhood as a microcosm gets old quickly. The bleakness and loneliness of Finney’s world may capture a more authentic experience than the rose-coloured nostalgia often found in late 20th century period films, but it’s also somewhat old-hat. Being a latchkey kid was not all fun and games. It usually involved neglect and disappointment. The reverberating trauma of that experience also reflects a fundamentally broken aspect of suburban American life. The fantasy of the suburbs never existed. It just did a better job at hiding the truth. 

On its own, this wouldn’t be too grating. Derrickson does a good job capturing the milieu with a heightened naturalism. However, things start to fall apart when it’s matched with the other elements: a serial killer on the loose and an overwrought supernatural plot.

Aside from dealing with a serial killer, Finney’s sister (and possibly Finney himself) also has psychic powers. The serial killer might also have psychic abilities. There are also maybe ghosts. It’s a lot to handle for one movie and stretches the limits of credibility, particularly as it only ends up making the world of the movie feel increasingly small and closed-off. The supernatural elements don’t do anything to open up to new, rich perspectives but make everything fall into place a little too neatly. 

In a world that seems so senseless, violent and cruel, the competing ideas that “everything happens for a reason” and “nice guys will triumph” often feel at odds. The optimism of some story elements doesn’t feel like a beacon in a dark cave but instead underlines how terrible everything truly is. It also contributes to unintended claustrophobia, where the possibilities for the characters are not quite infinite but carefully constructed and predestined. Rather than a fully fleshed-out story, it feels like a genre exercise, an attempt to combine disparate elements to create something new — and only succeeding in creating something overwrought and overfamiliar.

Black Phone is more than competent as far as horror movies go. The performances and characters are interesting enough. The serial killer is just compelling enough, even though he also stretches the limits of credibility — Ethan Hawke manages to pull it all together. The movie doesn’t shy away from brutality, another asset in a film landscape that prefers over-polished and safe choices over something more daring. It’s just not that remarkable, and more bleak than it is scary. ■

Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson

Black Phone opens in Montreal theatres on June 24.

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