The Black Phone

Director: Scott Derrickson (USA). Year of Release: 2022

North Denver, 1978. A Little League baseball game. The pitcher throws, the batter misses. Strike One! The pitcher throws again. Strike Two! The pitcher looks self-satisfied at the bunches of girls in the crowd. He raises his arm and pitches again. The batter waves his bat and thwacks the ball over the fence for an easy home run which wins his team the match. The pitcher scours the audience again, but the bunches of girls are all making their way home.

Finney and Gwen live with their alcoholic father in the suburbs. He reacts strongly and violently to the slightest noise, even when Finney slurps his breakfast cereal. Given the year in which the film is set, you suspect he may have contracted PTSD in Nam. He is quick to take his belt to Gwen, especially when she starts to recount her clairvoyant dreams. She doesn’t want to end up like her mother, does she?

Finney is bullied at school, but seems unable to lift a finger to defend himself. He is only saved from serious injury when the hardest kid at school decides to befriend him. It also helps that Gwen isn’t backwards at chasing the bullies off with a rock in her hand, even when they give her a good kicking. Then Finney’s mate, the hard kid, gets abducted, and the bullying starts again.

Not for the first time, photos of missing children start to be posted on the local walls. This is the fifth kid to have gone missing, and none of the victims has been found. Then Gwen dreams of him being taken away in a van containing black balloons. The police are on her case as they found black balloons at the scene of the crime, but didn’t tell anyone. Gwen’s father gets angry, partly because it means she’s been having her dreams again, but also because he doesn’t want the cops calling.

Finney comes across a children’s entertainer in the street. The entertainer offers to do a trick, gives him a black balloon, then bundles Finney into the back of his van. It’s not long before Finney is in a stone-walled basement containing nothing but a mattress and an old black wall phone. He is occasionally visited and fed by his abductor, who is known as the Snatcher. Time passes, then the Snatcher’s other victims start to ring Finney on the phone, even though it has been disconnected.

The Black Phone has a number of good ideas, which it pulls of with a degree of panache. The disembodied voices at the other end of the phone give Finney advice about how he might escape. They let him know how he can reach a window at the top of the basement which looks out onto the street opposite, how he can burrow through the floor, or the wall, where he can find the combination lock which will let him out of the house if he sneaks upstairs.

But there is a big problem. The motto of this film could be “if at first you don’t succeed, give up and try something else entirely”. Finney often gets desperately close to escaping and is just thwarted at the last minute. Instead of having another go and giving it one final push, he moves on to a quite different escape attempt. This is typical of the film as a whole – plotlines which look like they might be leading somewhere interesting are regularly abruptly discarded.

It it is The Black Phone’s credit that it generally moves on at a brisk enough pace that we don’t spend too much time thinking about the plot’s many implausibilities. Is Gwen really clairvoyant? It seems so, but if that can be taken as fact, then surely anything goes. The film sidesteps this improbability by turning Gwen’s deals with Jesus into a joke. We move from her promising to believe in Him if He gives her a meaningful dream to the memorable line: “Jesus! What the Fuck?”

Other aspects of the film are slightly more irritating. Towards the beginning of the film, much is made about the travails of Gwen’s mother, but then she is forgotten entirely. The Snatcher is given a cokehead brother, who I presume we are supposed to think is the real Snatcher. But then, again, nothing really happens with the character. Much of the script has the feeling of a rough first draft. Characters are introduced but not really developed so you don’t really know why they’re there.

This is all a bit of a shame as the film has a serviceable plot, the acting is decent enough – particularly Ethan Hawke playing against type as the masked killer and Madeleine McGraw as the precociously foul mouthed Gwen. For most of the time you’re prepared to let it get away with the fact that little of it makes any sense. It promises more substance, but ultimately doesn’t really deliver. After meandering around it doesn’t really go anywhere.

The Black Phone is set in a date when life seemed more simple, when although there was a fear of abduction, there was usually little suspicion of sexual abuse, say. But it is this fear of addressing darker issues that makes the film short on content. Why does The Snatcher abduct young boys? This is not really explored, apart from the assumption that some people are just a bit odd like that. It makes for a film that’s ok as far as it goes but ultimately a bit dissatisfying.

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