Flix at :48: 'The Black Phone' doesn't bring anything new to the table
"The Black Phone" is a gloomy crime thriller directed by Scott Derrickson ("Doctor Strange," 2016) who has directed horror films including "Sinister" (2012) and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (2005). So it makes sense the mysterious supernatural elements of this new film are the most interesting.
In a dreary suburb of 1970s Denver, young boys are being kidnapped with few clues left behind. But when our main character is abducted (a shy, scrawny, bullied teenage boy), the game is on as he fights to escape a sparse, soundproof, basement room under the tense watch of an evil man.
Included with the lonely mattress and toilet in this basement room is a disconnected black phone that rings sporadically, allowing the captured boy to speak with past victims who lived in the basement before him. These phone conversations are the best part of this film. They are taut, laconic, patient and sure to get everyone nudged to the edge of their seat.
"The Black Phone" is adapted from a short story of the same name by Joe Hill first published in 2004. Joe Hill's father is famous horror novelist Stephen King, so you can imagine the dark vibe of this material. Ethan Hawke ("Tesla," 2020) gives a measured and realistic performance of a murderous psychopath hiding behind an array of disturbingly expressive, monochromatic, devil masks. (Notice I did not explain Ethan Hawke's performance as histrionic or booming.)
This film is not about the psychology of a predator or what makes him choose his victims. It's about survival and resourcefulness coming from an unlikely place. It's also about how the dead can give us gifts if we're brave enough to listen to them. "The Black Phone" is easily connected to "Stranger Things" (the Netflix series) as well as the 2017 horror film "It" with kids acting like adults and put in impossible situations of terror.
While it's mostly well-written and mostly unpredictable, I couldn't help but feel unsatisfied after leaving the theater. That's because "The Black Phone" is nothing especially different or fresh. It's a film we have seen before in other versions like "The Call" (2013), "Prisoners" (2013), "Split" (2016) and even "Poltergeist" (1982). A movie can still be a good one if it doesn't have much originality. It just won't be remembered for very long.