‘The Black Phone’ Review: Let It Go to Voicemail

Well, at least Ethan Hawke seemed to have fun…

“The Black Phone” follows a young boy (Mason Thames) who is kidnapped by a serial killer (Ethan Hawke) and must find a way to escape. Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, and James Ransone also star, while Scott Derrickson directs and co-writes.

I’m not the biggest fan of Scott Derrickson’s films, I think “Sinister” (also starring Hawke) is fairly boring and “Doctor Strange” is one of the MCU’s weaker outings (thank god Sam Raimi took over the sequel). Derrickson’s return to the horror genre, where he calls home, is an underwhelming one, as “The Black Phone” is full of cringe performance, poor writing, and a surprising lack of scares.

Ethan Hawke is one of our more under-appreciated working actors, and he has a little bit of menacing fun here as a masked killer (his first-ever villain role). Clearly trying to emulate the likes of James McAvoy in “Split” or Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” Hawke is flamboyant with his gestures and soft with his tone. It’s not a masterclass in acting by any means, but it is a solid (almost supporting) performance.

As our captured lead, Mason Thames is alright. When he’s alongside established actors like Hawke, he can be genuine and show some depth. But when he’s sharing a scene with his fellow child actors, it can get rough. There are several performances in here that are downright awful. From the flat delivery to starting their next line of dialogue the instant the other actor is done with theirs, there is a lot of both over- and under-acting, and it takes you out of scenes on multiple occasions.

Not that the script by Derrickson and his writing partner C. Robert Cargill do anyone any favors. They are clearly shooting off a first-draft screenplay, full of placement-holder dialogue, inconsistencies, and convenient fixes to problems that the writers themselves contrived. The film is uncertain if it wants to be a supernatural horror piece or a serial killer thriller, and the actors and mood suffer as a result.

“The Black Phone” wastes Ethan Hawke and a semi-effective set-up on a ghost story that doesn’t have but two genuine attempts at scares. If you want to go to the theater, eat popcorn in a dark room for (a very drawn-out) 102 minutes then sure, answer the call. But all others can let this one go to voicemail.

Critics Rating: 3/10

Universal Pictures

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