*. I’d read the story this film is based on in Joe Hill’s debut collection 20th Century Ghosts, and while I really enjoyed it I was scratching my head a bit as to how they were going to stretch it into a feature film. However, great movies have been made out of less so I was optimistic.
*. Hill is the son of Stephen King. He published under the name Hill because he didn’t want to use his dad’s name, and it’s very much to his credit that he’s earned a lot of success in his own right. He’s a good writer, and an original one. The link to King is strong though, and perhaps all the more so here seeing as the story “Black Phone” was early work. A broken family. Threatened children. A sense of providence or good magic operating in the world to balance out the evil. A couple of epic rescue fails. Even the balloons that have drifted in from It. The Grabber is presumably some kind of magician here, though Ethan Hawke saw him as the “evil clown” he is in the story (it was Hill who suggested the change to a magician because he didn’t think another evil clown would work after the recent movie adaptation of It).
*. The movie also adds its own homages to the oeuvre of King senior. The hole dug in the wall recalls The Shawshank Redemption. The use of the phone at the end is like the end of Misery and what Caan does with his typewriter. The little girl has a psychic power that we might call Shining (or, in Simpsons vernacular, “Shinning”). So there are lots of connections, really.
*. One change I found interesting is in the appearance of the Grabber. In the book he’s a fat man (even called a hippo at one point) and “his head had been shaved to a glassy polish.” In the movie he’s a thick but not obese Ethan Hawke, with long greasy locks. This made me think of how Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho was another tubby killer who was transformed by Hollywood into the slender Anthony Perkins. I like Hawke here, though I couldn’t help wondering about a heavier actor in the part. But I guess John Goodman had already done his stint as the captor in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
*. Movies, of course, have to have visual cues. In the story the Grabber doesn’t wear a mask, for example. Another, sillier point comes with one of Finney’s telephone conversations (of which there is only one in the story). Finney asks the Paperboy what he should do with the buried wire he’s found and instead of simply telling him the ghost spins a bottle and then makes it levitate so that it points to the window. I rolled my eyes at this. You’ve got the guy on the phone, just tell him what to do! Why play charades?
*. I mentioned the Grabber’s mask. It’s quite something, and maybe the only thing you’ll remember about the movie a week after you’ve seen it. Hill has even said he might be inspired to write a sequel based on its “iconic imagery.” I think we all know the only inspiration for any movie sequel. In any event, the poster got a lot of praise when it came out (director Scott Derrickson: “I knew no matter what, the mask is going to be the central part of the marketing campaign for this movie”), though I don’t think the Grabber is ever seen in that particular combo at any point in the film. So a great poster can still be false advertising.
*. Directed and co-written by Derrickson, who also had Hawke in the child-horror Sinister. Derrickson apparently (I’m going off his DVD commentary here) wanted to work through some issues he had with his own childhood growing up in North Denver in the ’70s. Being bullied, etc. He was even thinking of it as his version of The 400 Blows. Now there’s a connection I didn’t register.
*. Great moments in DVD commentary. I really need to start a collection of these. Scott Derrickson: “I believe in ghosts because millions of people see them, you know. I believe them really based on the evidence more than any belief system. But of course I don’t think they manifest themselves as clearly as they do in this movie.” Right.
*. How does Finney stay in that basement so long without getting dirty? At the very end he has a bit of dirt smudged on his face but that’s it, and his clothes look straight out of the laundry. Plus all that digging through the dirt with his hands and his hands still seemed really clean. That sort of bugged me.
*. I realize I haven’t said anything yet about the plot here. So there’s a child serial killer who the media dub the Grabber (Hawke) and he’s abducting boys in the Denver area, locking them up in his basement and then killing them. I’m not sure what the Grabber’s hang-up is, since he doesn’t sexually interfere with the boys before killing them. He just seeks to punish them by killing them.
*. One day the Grabber grabs Finney Blake (Mason Thames) off the street and locks him in the basement. Along with a mattress and a toilet the basement’s only other furnishing is a wall-mounted phone that’s disconnected but nevertheless starts ringing. On the other end of the line are the voices of the Grabber’s previous victims. They give Finney advice on how to escape, most of which is useless. But finally he gets out on his own, killing the Grabber in the process, just before his psychic sister was about to lead the police to his rescue.
*. As you can see, there’s not a lot there, and what is there doesn’t feel very original. It’s thin gruel and there are no twists aside from the wrong-house gag they just stole from The Silence of the Lambs. Thames, Hawke, and Madeleine McGraw (as Finney’s sister) are all really good. Derrickson does a decent job with the suspense, though I thought he left quite a bit on the table. In any event, he seems more interested in evoking a particular image of the ’70s than telling a horror story. And that part of it is pretty well done. As I’ve said so many times in these notes, today’s production design (credit to Patti Podesta here), even in low-budget films, is wonderful. But as I’ve also said, it rarely serves any function. The ’70s angle seems kind of superfluous here.
*. I might still have given this a (barely) passing grade but for the ending. This was awful. First the father, who is an alcoholic and sadistic brute breaks down and cries when Finney is rescued and he says he’s sorry so . . . I guess he’s OK now? Redeemed? I don’t know. Derrickson explains that the kids have “got to go home with this guy” and that’s it.
*. Then it gets worse because the next day at school Finney, who was previously a picked-on nerd (despite being pitcher for his local little league team), is now the coolest kid in the school because he killed the Grabber with his bare hands! He’s even more confident with the chicks, and the final line shows us that he’s a man now and he’s about to score! All from learning a painfully clichéd moral about how you gotta learn to stand up for yourself in life. Lesson learned (with some supernatural nudging). Now let’s party!