Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke
You can’t always hit a home run with your stories, even if you have the same genetics as Stephen King. A reality many children of legendary icons learn in their attempts to recreate the success of the individuals who bore them. The Black Phone stands as the perfect example of how it resembles the elements of King’s work but does not quite reach the desired effect or quality.
Young Finney (Mason Thames) does not enjoy his time in school but manages to make some friends, especially the bully repellant, Robin (Miguel Cazarez). When he gets taken by the infamous serial killer,Tthe Grabber (Ethan Hawke), he finds himself in the confines of a home with no escape. As he supernaturally builds a connection with the past victims to get out of this circumstance, others continue their search to find him.
Nothing burns more than having an instantly iconic villain and woefully underutilizing them, especially when it’s expensed due to some boring lead characters. That’s exactly what we received with Ethan Hawke’s The Grabber. First, it’s awesome to see Hawke portray a villainous horror character but the look of it felt instantly iconic. From the mask to the overall appearance and having someone as legendary as Hawke portraying him, with the right story we could have had another Annie Wilkes from Misery on our hands. Unfortunately, the story around Hawke’s villainous horror character lets him down as it does not give him nearly enough to do and focuses on the story of these kids that simply had no juice whatsoever.
Adapted from the short story written by Joe Hill, this feature has elements that demonstrate the author is an offspring of Stephen King. It has kids banding together in the afterlife and the real world contending with a big bad evil. Plenty of the trademarks and outline are there but the filling just does not cut the mustard. The idea of having this black phone where Finney can connect with the past victims of the Grabber appears to be good in theory but the execution of it in the film leaves plenty to be desired. This especially gets even more annoying when the child actors simply feel grating to watch. Instead of giving more screen time to The Grabber, we have to sit through these kids, who have no interesting facets to their personalities get to the bottom of this situation. It simply becomes a waiting game of when we get to see The Grabber again because that’s what sold us on the story, to begin with, but by the end, it appears we were sold a false bill of goods.
Much of the film thus takes place in this dirty old basement and leaves poor Mason Thames floundering to elevate a fairly underwhelming script, which should never be put on a child actor to do. It sucks even more because we have Ethan Hawke’s “The Grabber” sitting right upstairs doing nothing of substance. At that point why even bring on Ethan Hawke to portray this character if you’re just going to have him huff and puff the entire time off-camera without anything really to do? It becomes astounding and a waste of that man’s time. It would be one thing if The Grabber was a complete waste but the few moments where Hawke gets to shine demonstrates this character to be incredibly captivating. From the use of balloons, to how he wears his mask, so much more could have been explored that gets sacrificed for the sake of these kids.
Yes, it’s not typically kosher to criticize a film for what’s not, but the two paths to success looked pretty obvious from here and the road taken left plenty to be desired. The supernatural elements lack any sense of originality, the story has no real zip and it fails to impress in practically every area as a feature film. It would be harsh to have this fall on the child actors so it must fall down to the director and writer of the feature, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. You can count on one hand the good moments of this feature, which can never be a good thing. Instantly forgettable but a squandered opportunity makes this feature quite the disappointment. Plenty of potential but completely mismanaged and mostly unwatchable.