Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Black Phone.The experience of watching The Black Phone, the latest low-budget production from Blumhouse, was like taking a strange stroll down a memory lane of horror. This is not a description of it being particularly scary. Despite some solid work by Ethan Hawke As a mysterious masked man who abducts children, it is all rather tension-free and lacking deeper suspense. The reason for this is that its most prevalent influences end up making it feel derivative to the point of being safe, a hodgepodge of horror elements that have been done far better elsewhere. Specifically, it owes a great debt to the work of Stephen King whose fingerprints can be found all over the film. The setting, story, tone, and even many of its striking visuals almost made me think that it was a story from the author that we just did not know about. Unfortunately, save for the aforementioned performance by Hawke, it is so tied to King and his stories that it struggles to carve out a distinct cinematic identity of its own.
Adapted from a short story of the same by writer Joe Hillwho also happens to be King’s son, The Black Phone actually expands beyond its source material. It just then draws from other stories that have come before it. It began in the late 1970s Denver with siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who are facing the real-world horrors of an abusive father. An alcoholic and an angry drunk who beats his children, you can already feel how this could be any number of King characters that represent what it means to lose the fragile innocence of youth. Making things more explicit is that Gwen has powers, something she inherited from her mother. An easy reference point would be Firestarter with its similarly tragic family dynamics and young child with powers. However, it ends up being more like Carrie in how an abusive parent tries to suppress their own child and an odd religious undercurrent that was not present in the story. All of these thematic staples that are similar to King’s approach to horror feel incredibly blunt as homage and border on being subsumed by their references. That only gets more and more clear the longer it goes on.
When Finney himself gets kidnapped, we see the recurring visual used to signify the presence of the villain is balloons that he always seems to have with him. Yes, they are black instead of red though it is impossible for the mind to immediately not jump to It. This won’t be the first time that a visual cue recalls this King story either as, later on towards the end of the film, his sister is using her powers to search for where Finney was abducted to in a manner that feels like we ‘ re experiencing déjà vu. The way the scene is shot, staged, and costumed makes it explicit how much it is wearing its influences on its sleeves. With a dreary rain making everything look far more muted by comparison, Gwen’s yellow rain jacket is impossible to miss as she roams the streets. This even more closely resembles the iconography that was all over It when young Georgie put on what could be the same jacket and went out alone. Such imagery is what stands out in our minds when we think of horror and the visual language it uses. When another film takes such large portions of a prior work without adding much substance of its own, it is no longer speaking a distinct language that is not just a hollow echo.
There are moments in The Black Phone that aren’t derivative as it does occasionally get at some interesting ideas. The mask that Hawke wears throughout the film in particular is its most memorable aspect. When hearing the actor speak about how it informed the character and the way he played him, you begin to appreciate it even more for how much it instilled the film with a sense of its own identity. The only problem is that Hawke often fades into the background, leaving the rest of the story in the largely nondescript basement with a generic phone and not much else to grasp onto. That this basement itself was even apparently inspired by King’s real-life basement in Maine adds insult to injury, leaving it with almost no sense of individuality that can not be traced back to something familiar.
It is an original story only in the abstract alone, remaining painfully generic and without depth to what is briefly unique. The phone calls that go to the children who have passed and subsequently help Finney escape feel like a plot device rather than a fully realized part of its world. While not everything needs to be explained and spelled out in detail, it feels like a missed opportunity to have things that could make you stand out in the genre only be in service of elements that we’ve already seen before. Though King likely meant it as a compliment when he apparently referred to the film as Stand By Me… .In Hellit is hard to shake the feeling that this is also an unintentional indictment of its lack of originality and inventiveness it can call its own.
The Black Phone has been called a “crowd-pleaser,” a term that operates as a kind of critical shorthand to offer praise even when a film does not do much of anything to challenge the audience and mostly just coasts on playing it all very safe. This makes sense as a descriptor for how people might be put at ease, though it also obfuscates the reason why that is, which is that they’ve all already seen this done before. From the narrative to the imagery and the tone, it instills you with a suffocating sense of familiarity like you’re listening to a greatest hits album of a band that itself took much of its sound from another group. Even if you haven’t seen it exactly arranged like this before, you’ve seen almost all the parts in far better stories. That it then lacks the same sense of darkness and danger felt in the works of the so-called “master of horror,” you realize that what you’re seeing is more close to a cheap knockoff. It makes it feel like energy would have been better spent punching up the story as opposed to taking part in what is the cinematic equivalent of King cosplay.
This may sound harsh, though it is the best way to describe the unimaginative experience of watching the film go through all the motions of something that just never feels unique. It is not always easy to identify when drawing inspiration from something means risking losing a sense of your own originality, though The Black Phone is a film that is most memorable for how blatantly it does this as opposed to anything it did on its own. While there are worse places to be than in the shadow of King, it can still leave you without enough of a vision of your own to shine through.