The horror movie The Black Phone takes place in 1978, and the choice of setting is very much intentional. It’s an excuse for director Scott Derrickson to use the same type of blaring ’70s needle-drops — in this case, the nostalgic sounds of The Edgar Winter Group, Pink Floyd, Sweet, and Chic — also seen in Warner Bros’ recent two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It also lends realism to the barrage of scenes where kids mercilessly bully and beat the snot out of each other with nary a concerned adult in sight. That leads to the most effective product of the film’s period setting: a palpable sense of danger.
The late ’70s wasn’t quite the peak era for serial killings in America. (That didn’t happen until the mid-’80s.) But a number of high-profile cases did break during that era, and combined with the birth of televised murder trials and a rise in overall crime rates, the stories helped stoke paranoia in the general public. Attitudes about child rearing hadn’t yet caught up to this anxiety, though. And with the “Stranger Danger” campaigns of the ’80s still a few years away, 1978 was prime time for unsupervised kids being dragged into unmarked vans.
Based on a short story by Locke & Key and NOS4A2 author Joe Hill, The Black Phone exploits this fear early on, with wide shots of vans lurking behind gaggles of kids walking home from school alongside close-ups of missing-children flyers on community bulletin boards. Siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are well aware of the rumors behind those disappearances, attributed to a local boogeyman known as “The Grabber.”
A common superstition says that anyone who says The Grabber’s name aloud will be the next to get snatched. Finney believes that myth, which opens him up to mockery from younger sister Gwen. But his fear turns out to be justified. First, his best and only friend, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), a tough kid who likes horror movies, falls victim to The Grabber (Ethan Hawke, fresh off a different villain run in the MCU series Moon Knight). Then Finney himself is kidnapped, and he wakes up on a dirty mattress in a concrete cell in the basement of an anonymous, shabby house in their low-income Denver neighborhood.
Most of the film takes place in The Grabber’s basement, like the entirety of Hill’s original story. Here, Finney communicates with the disembodied voices of The Grabber’s five previous victims through the black phone of the title. (The cord has been cut, but the phone still rings. Spooky!) Each of these boys tried to escape The Grabber in his own way, and each of them rings Finney to offer him tips on how to survive where they couldn’t. The key is not to resist; as one boy explains, “If you don’t play, he can’t win.”
All these elements are spine-chilling. And The Black Phone has a grim sense of helplessness, particularly in the slow-motion overhead shots that glide over groups of adults with flashlights, searching for children the audience knows are already dead. Institutions fail kids on every level in this movie: Parents are alcoholic or absent, if not outright abusive. Detectives are so incompetent, all their best clues come from Gwen’s prophetic dreams. (Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. No wonder there’s a child with mental powers in the mix.)
Outside of the feeling of morbid inevitability, however, The Black Phone is a mess. The main issue is the performances, which range from puzzling to outright cringeworthy. Jeremy Davies is especially bad as Finney and Gwen’s drunk dad, whose slurring and screaming doesn’t register as authentically pathetic or threatening. Hawke is also too all over the place to read as credibly frightening: When we first see The Grabber, his face is painted white and he speaks in a high, affected voice that recalls Atlanta’s Teddy Perkins. Weird, right? What’s he trying to signify, and how does it fit into his psychosis? Doesn’t matter — that’s the first and last time that character detail will crop up in the film.
In later scenes, Hawke oscillates between childlike innocence and throaty growling, but without the commitment that makes similar performances so unnerving. (Think James McAvoy throwing himself into his multiple personalities in Split, for instance.) And with a mask covering at least half of his face at all times, an intense vocal performance really would have helped The Grabber and his twisted game of “naughty boy” elicit gasps from the audience instead of chortling.
Outside of the basement, The Black Phone’s tonal issues get even worse. There’s nothing as egregious in the film as the infamous “Angel of the Morning” vomiting-leper sequence in It: Chapter Two, but the film’s oscillations between comedy and horror are similarly unearned and ineffective. Add jump scares that do little beyond adding visual interest to repetitive scenes of Finney talking on the phone in an empty room, and The Black Phone manages to preserve everything that made Hill’s short story so creepy and undermine it at the same time.
The Black Phone debuts in theaters June 24.