Scott Derrickson reteams with his Sinister star Ethan Hawke for an inert and mostly pointless yarn about a masked child catcher
Watching The Black Phone, Blumhouse’s latest horror project, is even more painful knowing what Ethan Hawke could be doing as an alternative. Finally making that fourth Before film. Reteaming with Paul Schrader. Taking more scene-stealing roles in epic viking sagas. Literally anything else. Instead, one of our generation’s finest actors has demeaned himself with what, perhaps cynically, I can only see as a cash-grab: a few day’s work as a cut-and-paste boogeyman, whose face is being used to sell tickets to a profoundly stale and stupid film he’s barely in.
Director Scott Derrickson kicks things off in North Denver, where kids are going missing in an otherwise normal late-70s suburb. With a pleasingly vintage feel achieved by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz’s soft anamorphic lens, we meet Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), two siblings who live in the area with their tyrannical father (Jeremy Davies). An alcoholic who is prone to giving out viciously beatings for non-existent slights, he resents being left with his kids after the suicide of their mother. Finney is bullied at school – articulated to the audience through several scenes of kids beating on each other, overlaid with comically overwrought punch sound effects.
Naturally, Finney ends up being grabbed by Hawke’s “The Grabber” and finds himself imprisoned in a dank underground chamber with nothing but a stained mattress and cordless phone for company. Despite being broken, this black phone mysteriously rings – and on the other end of the line we hear the disembodied voices of the killer’s previous victims, giving Finney (largely unhelpful) advice on how to escape.
McGraw is particularly good as the precocious teenager bent on saving her brother, but her character’s arc is so senseless and, ultimately, pointless, that you wonder why she was written in the first place other than to function as an emotional core. Why can Finney communicate with The Grabber’s past victims through the phone, but the other captured kids couldn’t? Why does the fact their mother committed suicide mean that Gwen has psychic dreams – is it an inherited trait, and if so, why does it matter? Why should we care about any of it? Part of the cultural fascination surrounding serial killers involves the public dissecting the figure’s motivations, their childhood, their raison d'être; Hawke’s villain simply doesn’t have anything beyond a vague, throwaway reference to him being a failed magician. Even the masked and seemingly motivationless Michael Myers had a backstory.
The clichéd horror tropes arrive thick and fast. Derivative dolly zooms, dream sequences shot in Super 8, trite sound effects of evil cackling and creepy child laughter – all this and more are wheeled out while we sit with Finney in the dungeon, similarly imprisoned and bored, waiting for Hawke to come in and liven things up. In the brief moments he obliges, the actor is pleasingly unhinged. But doing a silly little high voice and dropping sardonic one-liners doesn’t make up for the complete lack of interest we have in his character. One potential link between The Grabber and Finney’s father – they both use their belt as a weapon – is raised, and then promptly never examined again.
The message of this inert film – the type that immediately ceases to exist as soon as you walk out of the cinema – is that kids should have self-belief, or something. If that sounds a little thin, you would be correct: this phone rings hollow.
The Black Phone is released in UK cinemas on 24 June.Where to watch