Monday, October 31, 2022

Phone a Friend

I wish The Black Phone (2022, directed by Scott Derrickson) had the same ferocity as Sinister, the director's last horror movie. That film hinted at awful things for its whole length and then made good on those awful things in a way that was not reassuring for the audience as they filed to the exits. The Black Phone hints at awful things, too, but an alert viewer will realize that this is a different kind of dark fantasy film, one where the powerless must find power in themselves to overcome the monster. It's a Twilight-zoney film in which the whispers of other worlds are in contrast with the horrors of the mundane, but it's one that's reassuring in the end in a way that Sinister was not. I don't think I'm giving anything away with this, given the premise and structure of the film. It's a tense suspense film through its entire length, but it's only very occasionally scary.

The story follows Finney Blake, a likeable kid in Denver, Colorado, during the reign of terror of a child-abducting serial killer called "The Grabber." Finn, as he's called by his friends and sister, is an ace pitcher on his baseball team, watches horror movies, and tries to protect himself and his sister from their alcoholic father, who is occasionally outright abusive. His sister, Gwen, live in a house where they're always on edge. Gwen, like her dead mother, has prophetic dreams, something her father cannot abide. When we first meet Finn, he's on the pitcher's mound, where he almost has the strikeout against Bruce, the best slugger on the opposing team. After the game, Bruce vanishes. He's a victim of The Grabber, whose telltale bunch of black balloons remain at the site of Bruce's abduction. At school, Finn must navigate the social pressures of junior high school, where he has enemies. He also has a friend in Robin, the toughest kid in school, who does not suffer bullies and at the beginning of the film, makes an object lesson out of the worst of them. Finn thinks Robin goes too far ("I guess he had it coming," Gwen says; "No one has THAT coming," Finn replies), but he accepts the friendship and the protection. In due course, it's Finn who winds up seized by The Grabber, who imprisons him in a soundproofed basement with a bed, a bathroom, and a disconnected black phone on the wall. The phone hasn't worked for years, The Grabber tells him, though it occasionally rings. "Static electricity," Finn is told. But when Finn answers the phone, there's a voice on the other end, a kid who doesn't remember his name, but remembers The Grabber. Finn knows who that kid is, and who the subsequent callers are, who all tell Finn what they tried to escape The Grabber's clutches. Soon enough, Finn begins to formulate his escape...

This is very much a film in the tradition of Stephen King--no surprise given the source material--in which mundane horrors are contrasted with the breath of other worlds. The Grabber, with his grinning mask and black balloons, is a banal monster. Serial killers like him flourished in the 1970s before DNA forensics and a more contemporary surveillance society. The film is appointed with other banal horrors that are less gaudy and more effective for bearing with them a universal familiarity. The most disturbing scene in the film has nothing to do with serial killers or the ghosts of victims: it's a scene of child abuse that's shocking for its brutality. And yet, it too is mundane. It's an everyday occurrence and not just in Finn's family. The scenes of violence among children are perhaps a lesser horror, but they are likely to carry a shock of recognition for most audiences. It's an unflinching depiction. The film hardly even needs The Grabber to act as the monster. In an unusual twist, the supernatural elements in the film are entirely benign, however creepy they may be.

The Black Phone rises and falls on its performances and in this regard, it's another example of how child actors are getting better or the abilities of directors to get performances out of child actors is getting better. Both of the kids who play the principle lead characters are excellent in their roles, with Mason Thames required to hold the screen by himself for long patches of its running time as Finn. Madeline McGraw as his sister, Gwen, maybe has a harder row to hoe as a girl plagued by visions and to her credit, she's believable. The other kids who play either bullies or ghosts are uniformly good, too, so much so that it's a shock that the kids entirely upstage Jeremy Davies, who plays Finn and Gwen's abusive dad. His performance, contra the kids, is a cartoon interpretation of an abusive dad. Of the adult characters, the Grabber's idiot speed freak brother, Max (James Ransone), makes the most impression, in part because he's the film's sole comic relief. Ethan Hawke's Grabber is moral blank, hidden almost always by the masks he wears. Hawke pulls off the neat trick of performing an interior character that sucks the light and warmth out of a room. It's subtle and effective.

The film is set in 1979, presumably for its proximity to the roots of contemporary horror culture (the film specifically name-checks The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) but also as a way around the cell phone problem that plagues horror movies of recent vintage. Its setting lends the film an air of nostalgia that has a bittersweet cast to it when each of the ghosts gets a recap of their life in what amounts to home movie footage. The brutal kid, Vince, now a ghost, does some of the heavy lifting with his Peter Frampton hair and cock of the walk attitude that screams late seventies movie villain. But he's just a kid, ultimately, and even the tough kids are victims here. The Grabber himself is inscrutable. There are hints of his motives--he likes to play games with his prey--but he might as well be a shark for all the insight the film gives him. The film spends more time on Finn's dad, maybe unnecessarily, and in doing so defangs him as a villain or even as an obstacle. The Black Phone itself is a novel psychopomp, one that feels a bit like the transmissions from the future in Prince of Darkness, but in a more benign register. It upends the role of telephones in countless thrillers where a ringing telephone is never good news. It's a testament to the horrors around him that Finn accepts its communion with the dead because every other path for him leads inexorably to a hidden grave. The story is smart here for being about children, because an adult would probably doubt until the grave opened for them. Finn's reaction to the phone, and to a lesser extent Gwen's reaction to her prophetic dreams, are a magic that's mostly unavailable to adults.

As for the production? It's fine even if it does indulge in the contemporary murk of too much color correction. This film is set in Denver, but never feels like Denver beyond a few cultural artifacts. I'm sure they sent a second unit to capture plates of the front range of the Rockies to place in backgrounds throughout the film, but Denver doesn't look like North Carolina and this film does. Maybe they should have sent the entire production with the second unit, but tax rebates and all that. The set where the film spends most of its time in the basement of The Grabber's house is suspiciously appointed with the things Finn needs to escape once the ghost leave him the breadcrumbs, which seems out of character for a killer who specifically built his own murder room. This seems more in service to the plot than to reality. But this is a fairy tale at its heart, and significant items are part of the idiom. If the film just put Finn in the killing jar and then killed him, there wouldn't be a film.

Writer Joe Hill has been filmed a couple of times now and I'm starting to wonder if his ideas are better left on the page. This film is better than Horns, sure, and better than NOS4A2, but there's still something lost in translation. I'm sure more will come, and maybe those will hit. The trope of the dead phoning the living works pretty well in Hill's Heart Shaped Box, so I don't know why it isn't as creepy here. Nature of the medium, I guess. Putting the ghosts in the frame while they're talking may take some of the sting out of the idea. Or maybe not. Regardless, they lack the jolt of the image of Finn's dad beating Gwen with a belt or the beatdown Robin delivers to his bully. The supernatural stuff? It's more like seasoning added to a pot of stew that's already on the boil.

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