Hyped but godawful, The Black Phone makes an ungainly lunge for cult-horror acclaim using every trick in the book – the book being a brisk short story about a child killer by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill.
In its pages, which thankfully run to 1,100 fewer than King’s IT, this character is an obese, sweating gay paedophile called Albert – not a perfect part, on the surface or indeed anywhere below it, for the gaunt, usually chilled-out Ethan Hawke. His Sinister director, Scott Derrickson, presumably lured him in with heaven knows what blandishments.
Thanks to a blend of tastelessness and ineptitude, the film sets about making Hawke’s agreement to guest-star look like the worst call of his life. It dishes out heaps of icky paranoia but remarkably few actual scares, while also managing to be pointlessly brutal in all the wrong places – which is to say, when Hawke’s limp-wristed caricature of a sub-Pennywise sex offender isn’t even on screen.
We’re in 1978, in suburban Colorado, where five pubescent boys have been thus far plucked off the streets, and piled into the black van of “The Grabber” (Hawke) when he pretends to show them a magic trick. The latest is 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), who finds himself locked in a basement with just a filthy mattress, a loo, and a black phone inexplicably hanging on one wall, which his captor tells him hasn’t worked for years.
Through this unlikely medium, as Hawke’s Albert doesn’t realise, his previous victims are able to contact Finney and give him survival tips, just at the point when he’s giving up all hope. While these dead unfortunates materialise to give us the odd jump, Finney’s expletive-fond younger sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) is picking up distress signals in some vaguely-indebted-to-The-Shining manner, and cycling around like crazy to find him before it’s too late.
In these days of Blumhouse horror domination, no self-respecting bogeyman can go about his murky business without accessorising. Hawke’s creepy mask is a modular thing in bone gray, with a wide toothy rictus and devil horns. He screams when it comes off, but also spends half of the film mixing and matching it in different sections, which sums up the film’s general binning of logic in favour of whatever design gimmicks it deems effective.
Dumber still, Albert has a cokehead brother (James Ransone, another Sinister alumnus) who’s obliviously playing sleuth on the sofa upstairs, but has neither been down to the basement in months nor seemingly noticed the whole mask thing, since he and Hawke don’t interact once.
Meanwhile, the always-too-much Jeremy Davies plays Finney and Gwen’s dad as an abusive, unconvincing slob who inflicts more casually awful violence than anything we see Albert doing. There are bonus scenes with kids throwing bricks in each other’s faces, kicking each other viciously in the head, and carving their names into other kids’ forearms, seemingly just to up the grit quotient and make 1970s suburbia feel like hell.
In fact, it’s the film that’s hell – and a very dull, desperate hell at that, as if these dungeon masters have realised we aren’t sufficiently scared by the main event, and try throwing the kitchen sink at us, almost literally.
The supernatural elements have bizarrely little payoff, leaving us only with the brother-sister bond; thankfully, the kids’ performances are the best thing in this farrago by far. But then the procedural end gets mucked up: a twist involving the wrong front door plays like the climax of The Silence of the Lambs for morons. The Black Phone doesn’t just dial up paedo-revenge thrills as instantly dubious entertainment, but then devises cack-handed solutions to every last puzzle it sets.
15 cert, 103 min. In cinemas from Friday June 24