The Black Phone

Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Distributed by: Universal Pictures

Written by Taylor Baker


Scott Derrickson’s somewhat awaited follow-up to 2016’s “Doctor Strange” has arrived. After a somewhat publicized back and forth disagreement about the “Doctor Strange” sequel that he ultimately walked away from he’s back with a middlebrow adaptation of Joe Hill’s Short Story, ‘The Black Phone.’ His adaptation is proficient in much of its cinematography, lighting, and set design. It fails to bridge the uncanny gap of translating short fiction to film. Within fiction of any length, there is a different conveyance of intent and art which can allude to deeper forces, desires, and a score of other human ideas in emotions. One of the most compelling ways that written works do this is through strong character representation, harsh circumstances, and a compelling world. Bringing such ideas to life with a camera is no small task, especially for a narrative as reliant on the unseen as this one. “The Black Phone’s” primary issue is the phone after which it is named. Despite its severed cord, the black phone mysteriously rings and allows children whom The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has previously kidnapped and murdered to call Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), his new captive. They impart secret knowledge of his surroundings, his captor, and implements he may use to escape. Likewise, Finney’s sister Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) possesses a psychic sight that she accesses by dreaming. These supernatural forces at the periphery of the film oddly remain unacknowledged and unengaged with aside from some hemming and hawing about the brother and sister’s mother having similar power to that which Gwen inherited. In one of the first phone calls that Finney takes on the titular phone, the voice tells him that The Grabber can hear the ringing too but that he doesn’t believe it. This statement is never reengaged with nor interrogated. While in short fiction and long-form fiction these brief allusions strengthen and embolden the world, in cinema when an entire plot hinges on a magical doodad and some psychic abilities the complete and total avoidance of their interrogation discombobulates the world and superimposes a sense of falseness to its entirety. This is a pity because there are some moments and sequences of strong visual control, building dread by pointing the camera away from the door with an imposing harshness while Finney is on the phone and forcing the audience to contend with the fact that at any moment he could be caught speaking to spirits or killed.

For what talent Derrickson shows for building foreboding by what’s not in the frame he muddies the waters with 1970s look-alike shots that are just that. Look-alike. No amount of suspended disbelief can help one from knowing that these jarring stylisms are an ode to something of the past, rather than keeping the whole of the film in control and in resemblance of itself. Even if you didn’t know Joe Hill was the son of Stephen King, upon exiting the theater there is little doubt that this narrative is in his styling. There have been dozens of adapted fiction and short fiction titles that have had immense success in recent years. Some of those pair multiple pieces of fiction together, “Drive My Car,” some others pare down what is being adapted to be more specific and deliberate in their execution, “Call Me By Your Name,” others are embellished by secondary writers that take the outline but make the narrative their own such as “The Last Duel” or “Arrival” and some are simply faithful and cinematically rich adaptions like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” Unfortunately, “The Black Phone” fails to follow the successful path that any of these aforementioned titles tread down and instead reiterates the idea that “Some stories aren’t meant for the silver screen.” For me, this is one of those stories.

“The Black Phone” Trailer

“The Black Phone” is in wide theatrical release.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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