The Black Phone (2021)
⭐⭐½ (2½ stars out of 5)
The Black Phone (2021) Directed by Scott Derrickson
The writing is tremulous and its transposition to the screen is timidly irresolute, although those are just some of the more innocuous flaws of this expressive production that has as many specific moments of colossal effectiveness as it does of immeasurable ineptitude. The Black Phone wears its costume tightly, knows what kind of thriller it wants to be and which ones it wants to imitate, and with resounding operability instrumentalizes those popular qualities of the genre with a more shocking noise typical of horror cinema. Adapting Joe Hill’s short story of the same name to film seems commercially an act of indisputable interest, naturally its language is chameleonic to the cinematic format and as a result a film of automatic appeal to the public. However, here I am only contextualizing the idea pre-production, articulating the concept in production is another story altogether. In The Black Phone we have ”three films” telling a single story, the wayward director Scott Derrickson I dare say is not aware of it, if any of those films look good within a narrative unit then for him that is more than enough to satisfy his egocentric needs as the conductor of this thriller. Having as material the story of a child abductor in the Denver suburbs in the 70’s should be an effortless task in matters of constructing each act and unifying them with dramatic continuity, but apparently the differentiation among each of those patchy sections tell us otherwise, an unintentional collision between the sense of literal narrative and the weak filmic communication with the logic of the story is evident. Occasionally the narrative parameters it follows and respects as if it were an inviolable rule, feel very attached to a rather primary formula, even quite obsolete I would say. Possibly if this film had belonged to the copious thrillers about kidnappers and serial killers that expanded post-Seven (1995) it would be seen more for what it is, than for what it tries to be.
The color grading and outfits scream that the plot takes place in the 70’s, yet that’s not enough for this production, it must also have music that evokes a sense of place. Its reiteration tells us that the first act will be a short film of a dark and decaying coming-of-age narrative, bullying on a delinquent level, domestic violence molded in the most vicious way and as a concluding ingredient the teenager falling candidly in love with the pretty girl in his class. The plot becomes obsessed with these narrative constructive elements to the point of neglecting that the film should have started much earlier; clearly this is just my conjecture, although it is also very likely that much of the film got muddled in the editing room. After the elongated opening, the story picks up an energy unlike anything we’d seen in the ruinous first act. The nefarious, deranged, masked child abductor nicknamed ”The Grabber” is the perpetrator of multiple child disappearances in a dingy suburb, but his most special abduction is definitely that of a frightened, skinny teenager. Finney the kidnapped teenager now lives captive in the hellish darkness of the sick villain’s basement plotting how to escape with the help of a mysterious, seemingly useless, black telephone that rings momentarily with voices from beyond the grave. Mason Thames plays the vulnerable boy who is kidnapped by the psychotic villain, the latter played with diabolical ugliness and disturbing subtlety by Ethan Hawke.
Despite the scarcity of the ”grabber’s” appearances on screen, the minuscule minutes are unsurpassed in tension and the profuse energy is conveyed even in the limited presence he has; at times keeping the infamous kidnapper hidden for too long makes the brooding claustrophobia darkly menacing and nightmarish. Having as its structural basis the supernatural core of the short story on which it is based, it evidently aggravates an uncontrollable heterogeneity, that is, the narrative never manages to establish a dynamic relationship between the realism of its context and the otherworldly atmospheric fantasy. Precisely, the phantasmagoric factor breaks the terrifying emphasis of a plot with these characteristics, but mainly it undermines it because of the mismatch within the puny narrative form that suffers from the beginning and the haphazard configuration of the events that take place simultaneously while the main character is trapped in the creepy basement.
The Black Phone at first glance is mildly entertaining, however the execution makes this light entertainment disjointed, monotonous and stodgy.