three scary white masks
Courtesy Universal Pictures

The Black Phone is based on a story by Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son. It would be nice if the filial connection were not the most pertinent fact about the movie adaptation, but it is what it is. This is practically a King pastiche. There are ominous kids’ balloons and a child in a yellow raincoat from It. There’s a house imprisonment that recalls Misery. There are psychic powers, parental abuse, and an obsession with bullying from . . . well, every Stephen King novel. It’s even set in the 70s. (There is the occasional lift from other sources, like the ambiguously helpful dead kids from The Sixth Sense.)

King usually has something slightly odd to say in even his worst novels. Alas, that’s where Hill’s mimicking of his inherited source material ends. The plot has a lot of whistles and bells—literally, in the case of the titular phone which lets you talk to ghosts. But at bottom it’s just a basic empowerment fantasy. Our hero, Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), is sweet but not manly enough to defend himself like a man does. He needs to get kidnapped in order to cast off his nerdy wimpiness and embrace his inner adult tough guy. 

Ethan Hawke as the designated stranger danger chews scenery in the accepted horror film maniac way. Madeleine McGraw gives her all to the spunky little sister part; she especially seems to relish the profanity. Director Scott Derrickson throws in some self-conscious stylistic twists from the horror movie jump scare grab bag. The effort is appreciated as far as it goes. But it doesn’t matter how enthusiastically you dial if you end up with a bore on the other end of the line. R, 103 min.

Wide release in theaters