Our new film critic Vera Wang is taking on the latest and most buzzed-about movie titles to hit the big and small screens. Check out her take on The Black Phone.
Or, if Pennywise lived in a house in Denver instead of the sewers.
The year is 1978, in Denver, Colorado. A string of child abductions have been occurring in a small suburb by a kidnapper dubbed “The Grabber". Soon after protagonist Finney Blake’s friend Robin is taken, Finney, too, is kidnapped; the rest of the film follows a split narrative, wherein Finney tries to escape The Grabber, and his psychic sister Gwen uses her clairvoyant dreams to aid the police in finding him.
In The Black Phone, director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) attempts to balance both aspects of horror and story, but with varying degrees of success. His hybrid horror of physical threat- the abduction, confinement, and abuse of The Grabber’s victims, and supernatural scares- the body horror and bloody, maimed appearance of the ghosts, work together well to instill a solid element of suspense and fear in the viewers, who wait in apprehension for the myriad of potential atrocities to occur. On the other hand, the reasons for the abductions remain completely unresolved, and the contextual portrayal of the law enforcement’s response to the mass kidnappings is unconvincing and unrealistic.
Throughout the film, through subtle, vague mentions of his childhood and distinct fear of removing his mask, I was led to believe that The Grabber, played by Ethan Hawke, might be kidnapping these victims (who all happen to be young teenage boys) as a result of his childhood trauma, which Finney, played by Mason Thames, is also greatly affected by. In the end, there's a big pay-off in terms of action and suspense, but as for why he, and the other boys, were kidnapped? A whole big nothingburger.
A generous suspension of belief should be applied to the reactions of the police, who, despite the investigation seeming prolific and well-funded, as seen by the half-dozen cop cars that line the streets to search for the fourth victim, Robin, appear to be grossly incompetent and misguided in their deductions. For example, even though the police had knowledge of The Grabber’s frequent use of black balloons in his abductions, they made no move to survey the area for stores that sold such balloons, which could help narrow down The Grabber’s address or physical description from possible store employees. Why weren’t the detectives more thorough? Why hadn’t they already interviewed all the residents in the suburb? After all, The Grabber clearly only targeted schoolchildren in that specific area. Most importantly, were the police so absolutely inept that they had to resort to using a psychic tween girl to solve their crimes for them? Other than the obligatory “Have you seen this missing boy?”, the audience saw no evidence of the police making a significant effort to close the case.
With regard to The Grabber's methods, I have one word: risky. All done in the light of day, on the street, in view of every house and possibly resident. And not once did people report seeing a distinctly conspicuous, matte black van of a non-resident, or hear the children screaming as The Grabber thrust them into the van? Risky for The Grabber to perform, implausible for the residents to ignore.
Much praise should be given to Mason Thames for his competent performance as Finney Blake, a young, intelligent boy whose confidence and self-esteem is scarred by his father’s abusive behaviour. Thames’ line delivery was natural, facial expressions and mannerisms subtle, but believable, and he completely embodied Finney’s speech and actions. At the beginning of the film, we saw him crumble under the pressure of an important baseball game, run and hide away from his bullies, and hesitate to even acknowledge The Grabber by name, all which stemmed from a deep-rooted feeling of helplessness and bystanding. Born into the care of a domineering father, whose own traumas developed his abusive tendencies, Finney was forced into a routine of staying silent and obedient in the face of unjust behaviour. “You’re gonna have to stand up for yourself one of these days,” Robin says after Finney defends his bullies. This overarching theme of bravery was not a concept introduced in a ham-fisted manner, nor was the script obnoxious about it- it was interwoven subtly, peppering the audience with subconscious clues of how Finney’s fear, in light of his abduction and increasing desperation, transformed him into a fighter- one who rose to the occasion to fight tooth and nail for his survival.
Thames’ acting managed to outshine even veteran actor Ethan Hawke, which was weird not because Mason Thames is a bad actor, just that Ethan Hawke is so absolutely fantastic and versatile and we just… didn’t get to see much presence from him. Which was partly to do with the dirty, ivory mask he used to cover his face, limiting the extent to which we experienced his emotions. However, this was not helped by his character’s tragic lack of screentime and development. Other gripes about continuity errors and plot holes could be made, like how the ghosts of past victims were clearly invisible to Finney, up until the writers needed one to show Finney a potential method of escape. There was also the overbearing presence of jumpscare stings, which provided the audience with a “Hey! Loud noise! Be scared now!” cue that should really only be reserved for making trashy horror B-movies.
Overall, The Black Phone is a decent hundred-minute flick that delivers solid B grade horror elements, though its narrative and logical depth leave much to be desired. Opportunities were missed in the underutilization of Ethan Hawke, though Mason Thames’ performance as Finney Blake stole the show. Even in weakness, Finney's resilience is admirable, and it's refreshing to see a character take such smart, sensible actions, all of which culminate in a stellar fight sequence and satisfying ending where he finally escapes his trauma-induced demons. Finney's character development alone is worth the watch, as he transitions from underdog to unlikely hero in a tightly-written, coming-of-age arc.
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