If we can’t literally protect the vulnerable in our communities, can we at least stop with the hackneyed, cliched bullshit of having bullies in movies use homophobic/transphobic slurs? Seems like a low bar to clear. Then again, lowlifes who have cleared the bar (exam) are apparently determined to wind back civil rights to circa-Stonewall, so here we are, I guess?
Writer/director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Gargill would almost certainly defend the use of bigotry in the first five minutes of “The Black Phone” as emblematic of middle-school ruffian behavior in the 1970s. Cool. Since we’re not currently living in pre-Regan-era bliss, it’s actually more emblematic of the film’s existence as a repetitive, hackneyed costume stitched together from skins shed by better Stephen King stories.
Based on a short story by King’s son, Joe Hill, “The Black Phone” has got all his pop’s tired tropes. These include appearances by favorites like an alcoholic dad, “Shining”-esque mental superpowers, an impossibly large/deadly dog, and children being abused and tortured. Had they squeezed in a “Native Americans are magic” deus ex machina, you’d have thought it was “It 3: It Me, You Dead.”
Centering any movie around adolescent actors is a gamble. That bet is less like putting down $10 on the spin of a roulette wheel and more like “I don’t think this milk is that expired.” It is. It very much is, and nobody is going to enjoy the sounds and sights you’ll make as a result of this poor choice. Picking on child performers is mean, so we can leave it at the fact that, like an Amazon Prime driver who just found an employer that respects them, not one single line of dialogue gets delivered intact.
The “plot” is so radically simple as to be upsetting to recap. Finney (Mason Thames) gets kidnapped by a serial doer-of-bad-things-to-young-boys known as “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) and imprisoned in a basement. In said basement is a black phone that is not connected. Said black phone rings. The ghosts of dead kids then basically table-read the final act of “Signs” to Finney. Meanwhile, his sister has visions/dreams that are only loosely useful. Because somehow the whole King family has decided that sorta having ESP is more realistic?
Nothing in “The Black Phone” is in the same zip code as scary. The Grabber has a neat mask, I guess? The message appears to be “Sometimes young men gotta man up and do what men gotta do and commit violence.” This fits 2022’s summer movie pattern of “Maybe we don’t need to reinforce that particular bad idea?” At one point, the take-home message here is reduced to a character literally saying that sometimes you have to keep punching someone’s face until it bleeds.
Not one single scene, not one moment, not one idea even kinda works in “The Black Phone.” The music is almost wholly absent before it is wildly silly and distracting. Every suspenseful moment is either telegraphed or ripped from a superior (or inferior) movie. The ending involves a “reveal” that is the absolute dumbest thing I’ve heard in years, and I just saw “Jurassic World: Dominion.” It is a boring, ugly, stupid film that I regret having seen.
Other than that, A+.
Grade = F-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Catalina Combs at Black Girl Nerds says “‘The Black Phone’ follows no rules or gimmicks. It’s just horrifying. Entertaining, but horrifying. Viewer beware.”
Jenny Heaton at Alternative Lens says “‘The Black Phone’ is a good piece of trashy summer fun and a great return to his pure horror roots for Derrickson, though it ultimately can’t match the surprise and ingenuity of Sinister. It’s a genre he and Cargill clearly excel in, and I hope the pair continue to craft more tales of the macabre, hopefully with something that pushes the boundaries a little more rather than just a solid tribute to ages past.”
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “Bizarrely, the most daring choice Derrickson makes with his worldbuilding is showcasing kids hurling slurs at each other. Sure, such insults used to be pitched around much more freely. But we don’t view them the same way today. So when Finney is repeatedly called an anti-gay slur, it’s jarring — especially when one of the few things Cargill does establish about him before the abduction is his big crush on a girl. The slur, then, isn’t meant to tell us about Finney’s identity or interior life; it’s just that he is being bullied by mean, slur-saying kids. Happy Pride month.”