A black phone review

Madison Thames (center) stars as Finney Shaw, a boy who communicates with victims of the serial killer who kidnapped him, in The Black Phone.

Madison Thames (center) stars as Finney Shaw, a young boy who communicates with victims of the serial killer who kidnapped him, in the black phone.
Photograph: Universal Images

Based on a short story by Joe Hill, the black phone hits a sweet spot regarding the subject matter, its setting, its tone and its star that should allow it to resonate with both hardcore horror fans and casual viewers – “the Conjuration crowd,” as it were, who go out only occasionally and under circumstances like these to be terrified in a theater. like A Nightmare on Elm Street, it focuses on a child kidnapper (and eventually a murderer). like Weird stufftakes place in the not-so-distant past, and reimagines that time according to the cinematic nostalgia of the filmmakers (in this case, director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill), from the old Stephen King adaptations to the teenage pettiness of the The bad news bears. And like Derrickson and Cargill’s beloved Sinisteris starring Ethan Hawke.

Unfortunately, Hill’s tale isn’t an especially good movie – or this adaptation doesn’t make a good movie, either. When he wasn’t driving Doctor Strange or the remake of The Day the Earth Stood StillDerrickson has developed a pedigree for creating beautiful and disturbing images, not just in Sinister but The Exorcism of Emily Rose. He does it again here, but fails to connect the important dots – or at least answer some vital questions – that would make this serial killer/ghost story truly terrifying.

Set in 1978, the film stars Madison Thames as Finney Shaw, a boy who is bullied at school by his peers and bullied at home by his abusive father (Jeremy Davies). That’s despite a younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who defends him on the playground, and a throwing arm that even the other team calls “mint”. But when Finney is kidnapped by a serial killer nicknamed “The Grabber” by the locals, he’s forced to muster forces he didn’t know he needed to find a way to escape.

Locked in a shabby basement equipped only with a mystery phone whose cord has been cut, Finney is understandably skeptical when the phone unexpectedly rings. But when the voice on the other end turns out to be one of the Grabber’s previous victims, he listens in hopes of getting advice to help him avoid certain death. Meanwhile, Gwen cultivates a Brillant-such as the ability to communicate with the spirits of these same victims, which she uses to try to find Finney when the local police run out of tangible leads.

Of course, there are more complications and complexities to the story that Cargill and Derrickson tell, but we’ll leave them for you to discover. Part of the problem is in the way they tell the story, where these elements overlap but not all connect effectively. First of all, it never seems clear exactly what the Grabber wants, or why he doesn’t kill Finney right away. You see, in addition to murdering horny teenagers, Jason Voorhees didn’t have a clear motive either. Despite the Grabber’s avoidance of being a “child killer” but not a child molester, a cannibal, etc., the point is: what’s his point with this kid since he’s not killing him right away? He seems to keep Finney too long for no purpose other than to make the boy experience a moment of coming of age.

More logistically, Derrickson seizes the opportunity to explore the physical space Finney is trapped in. Instead, he relies on frightening but often nonsensical imagery to heighten the tension that must build due to the urgency of his (hopeful) escape. The most egregious example of this revolves around a barricaded window that Finney at one point manages to open. Although The Grabber enters and leaves the room several times after this point, Derrickson never shows the window again, so it’s unclear whether this dangerous breach of his basement imprisonment is detected by the meticulous and obviously considerate killer. But the nightmarish visions, and the broken Coke bottles and other props that Finney uses in the suggestions of his ghostly predecessors, add up without building anything that achieves overall meaning, let alone lasting effect.

Hidden behind a modular mask that suggests a bespectacled, smiling Guy Fawkes, Hawke does his best to threaten The Grabber. But without a sense of purpose to turn his abductions into terrifying gauntlets, there’s nothing terrifying about him as a villain. Part of the problem may be that young Madison Thames just doesn’t look consistently scared enough. In the meantime, you can’t help but feel sorry for Jeremy Davies as Finney and Gwen’s abusive father. It’s the kind of role he excels in depressingly, but this film doesn’t allow enough depth for the character’s moments of tenderness or regret to mitigate his children’s mistreatment.

Ultimately, Cargill and Derrickson lay clues to two different provocative ideas – a masked serial killer and a family that may unwittingly communicate with the killer’s victims. But these concepts, as well as the film’s soundtrack and recreation of the 1970s period (even some racist and homophobic slurs), never come together into a cohesive story. Which is surprising, because The Grabber is exactly the kind of urban legend that would strike terror into high school kids, and to make a movie set in a time when that legend would be shared with feverish enthusiasm by kids worried about becoming the next killer. . victim (and no internet to consult) looks like a home run in the making.

answer the call from the black phone if you dare. Be aware that, just like the severed cord hanging underneath the device, there is a crucial disconnect between the provocative ideas it creates and what it offers..

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