In a summer where audiences cannot get enough ’80s flashbacks, from Top Gun to Stranger Things, the horror film The Black Phone goes in the complete opposite direction. It has a marked disinterest in nostalgia, instead presenting American suburbia in the late 1970s where many characters are sadistic, abusive, and violent. And that is before the film reveals its villain, a disturbed kidnapper who locks teenage boys in his basement. Director Scott Derrickson and his co-screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, crafted a nasty piece of work: a horror film that owes as much to true crime as it does to traditional horror. If parts of the film can be effective, they are undone by a gleeful desire to depict cruelty, juxtaposed with borderline hilarious plot holes.
At first, Derrickson and Cargill use our sense of film history to upend our expectations. Like the classic hangout comedy Dazed and Confused, the film opens with a little league game while Foghat’s “Slow Ride” plays. This should be an opportunity to relax, but soon protagonist Finney (Mason Thames) and his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) witness a brawl among their classmates. Derrickson lingers on the violence. One kid has clearly won the fight, and he still beats his enemy mercilessly, smashing the other’s face until he might suffer brain damage. Right away, the scene obliterates any sense of fun, and a few moments later, Finney finds his father (Jeremy Davies) physically abusing Gwen. The abuse scene is long and uncomfortable, with high tension and actors screaming at the top of their lungs. Paired together, there is a good chance the film may inspire walk-outs before the plot has even been revealed.
Those who stay after the casual violence may regret doing so. All the characters are aware of “The Grabber,” a mysterious serial kidnapper who snatches boys with his black van. He is a real threat with a sense of otherworldly mystery around him, and soon Finney is his latest victim. Ethan Hawke, who last worked with Derrickson in Sinister, plays The Grabber. His performance is exaggerated, almost effeminate, but made wholly uncomfortable through the grotesque masks he prefers to wear (we do not see Hawke’s face until the end of the film). Here, The Black Phone settles into a battle of wills between Finney and The Grabber, who prefers to needle Finney through eccentricity and unpredictable behavior.
It is around this point that Derrick and Cargill—whose screenplay is an adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill—introduce supernatural elements. You may know Hill is Stephen King’s son, and while he is a success in his own right, his father’s influence is apparent quickly, both in the ending and in the story’s focus on latchkey kids in sleepy suburbs who deal with threats both real and imagined.
Alone in the basement, Finney notices a disconnected rotary telephone. Despite being clearly disconnected, it starts to ring, and on the other end of the line are voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, who alternate between terrorizing Finney and providing him advice on how to escape (these sequences lead to some well-timed jump scares). Meanwhile, Gwen has psychic powers when she dreams, which she uses to track down Finney’s location. If The Black Phone were set in Maine and not Colorado, it could be a companion to King classics like It or Carrie.
Everything outside Finney and The Grabber’s dragged-out confrontation is where The Black Phone starts to reveal its shortcomings. For a film that equates brutality with realism, it includes some plot points that are enough to suspend our sense of disbelief. The introduction of a goofy, pivotal character undermines the idea that The Grabber could operate in plain sight. On top of that, Derrickson and Cargill ask us to believe that Finney, a kid who survives through a tough adolescence, would somehow fall for The Grabber’s trick, which involves the aforementioned black van and asking whether he wants to see a magic trick. The mix of edgy realism and convenient plot points do not coalesce the way Derrickson intends.
One irony is that the film’s dark core has enough raw, disturbing cinematic power to stand on its own. With a mask obscuring his face, Hawke relies on verbal eccentricity to suggest The Grabber is deeply unwell, while newcomer Thames strikes an agreeable balance between assertiveness and vulnerability. The Black Phone is a slow-burn for most of its running time, and the brusque climax lands with a sense of real satisfaction. All that satisfaction and atmosphere, however, is fleeting because Derrickson and Cargill pad out their film with scenes that are alternately grueling and insulting to audiences’ intelligence. Another, more important irony is that nostalgia—something the film resolutely avoids—would have smoothed over flaws that become more egregious the more you think about them.
The Black Phone opens in area theaters on June 24.