The Black Phone is an atmospheric horror with supernatural elements sprinkled throughout a realistic child abduction story. Set in the 70’s following Finney and his sister Gwen who are living in a community plagued by a series of kidnappings, it’s a throwback to the slow-burns of the era like ‘Burnt Offerings,’ ‘Don’t Look Now,’ and the first third of ‘When a Stranger Calls,’ that builds upon itself while taking time to let the scenes breathe, allowing the audience to not only get invested in the characters but experience the gravity of the situation. This is where it succeeds. It’s not a hard watch. Usually, when a movie has enough breathing room you risk the possibility of the film becoming a slog and losing the audience, but the speed at which it moves is well-timed and deliberate.
What caught me off guard was the restraint Derrickson showed in regards to the haunting. Yes, there are a few jump scares with the dead kids a la Sinister but they are neither overdone nor misused, each scene with the spirits serves a very specific purpose to visually move the narrative forward or creatively illustrate an otherwise mundane scene. This is a movie where a good portion of the story is just a kid in a basement talking on a rotary, you have to zhuzh it up someway and nowhere is it executed better than the super-eight film-styled flashback with gas station psycho Vance as his spirit recounts his turn in Finney’s shoes. There isn’t anything overtly gory or visceral, some floating contortion, dark streaks that I think are to resemble dried blood, but nothing actually shown that I feel fits with the theme. The horror doesn’t come from what is seen but what is implied, smartly leaving it up to the viewer’s imagination.
The dialogue and the children, for the most part, are believable. Some stilted phrases like, ‘mint,’ that may just be an archaic remnant of a lost era I was never part of being used to describe something as ‘excellent,’ because they weren’t ‘radical,’ or ‘extreme,’ yet, or perhaps Hill and/or Derrickson pulled it out of their asses as a way of Tarantino-ing minor characters brief appearance into something distinctive and meaningful through his linguistic aberration (see I can use verba-esoterica too). I adore the level of swearing, seems accurate to my childhood.
Before I go into my main critiques, I would like to preface them by saying I do not know how close the movie follows the original source material, I wasn’t in Stephen King’s basement long enough to see if there was a black phone on the wall. Also, I never read the short story, and with this said I do fear Joe is picking up some of his father’s habits: a flat gang of bullies that prey on the sensitive kid, randomly psychic children, and an abusive alcoholic father.
Even the Grabber, the main protagonist of The Black Phone, comes off as a cross between Pennywise, Mrs White, Annie Wilkes, and Bagul (that may just be Derrickson’s input on the design of the mask). The area I felt it was the weakest was in the hamfisted comedy surrounding the cops and Max, I’m all for comedy in my horror but it at least has to be funny and make sense in the world you are building.
Now, was this movie worth the price of admission? I believe since we’re in the new era of Stephen King where we’ve begun to remake his classics; ‘It,’ ‘Firestarter,’ ‘Salem’s Lot,’ ‘Carrie,’(twice) and many upcoming, it’s good to have a little variation with the next best thing. I enjoyed the movie as I watched it, perhaps it’s because the audience I saw it with was very reactive, but even looking back at it now I have more positive things to say than negatives. It is a good horror movie. You have to respect a kid killer flick, even if it hasn’t the balls to go full 80s and show the gore. And yes, it’s worth the price of admission,