Sunday 2 April 2023

Nerd Church - The Black Phone: The Film Adaptation of A Horror Masterpiece


The Black Phone is one of my favourite short stories of all time, from one of my favourite authors of all time, Joe Hill.

I've read the collection 20th Century Ghosts (where The Black Phone appears,) more times than it's truly a good thing to admit to - it's my comfort reading, don't judge me.

Title: The Black Phone: The Film Adaptation of A Horror Masterpiece. Background: grey. Image: a retro black phone

So I love this story. It's a masterpiece.

Not perfect, no - it mentions how fat the villain is at least six times too many, for a start - but a masterpiece, all the same.

And I'm fully prepared to admit that I'm entirely biased when it comes to this story. So be aware of that. 😅

As the novel Heart-Shaped Box also shows, Joe Hill is the best there is at supernatural phonecalls.

What that man can do with fictional phones is truly impressive.

Still, when I saw they were making The Black Phone into a film...

I was concerned.

Here's the trailer...

Warning: flashing images, horror elements, child abduction, violence, blood

There's so much in this story that I couldn't really see coming over in any film adaptation. 

I honestly couldn't understand how they would make this into a visual story.

But the bits I was most concerned with - the other boys who came before our protaganist, and the phonecalls themselves - were done exceptionally well. 

In fact the expansion on those aspects is amazing. The way the sound and images are paired during the phonecalls is awesome-sauce.

And some of the editing and the cinematography (camera shots if you're not as fancy as me 😜,) is chillingly beautiful.

...It's the stuff that should have been easier that somehow falls flat.

Like - did they focus so hard on the hard stuff that the straight-forward stuff just slipped through the net?

Was it just the puffing out of the story to make it film-length? Did it take some of the power of it? I don't know.

I mean the first 20 to 25 minutes could have been covered in 2 minutes, to be honest. It felt unneccessary.

The short story is...

Look, if you're a horror fan, or a crime-thriller fan, read The Black Phone.

If horror isn't your deal, stay well away from The Black Phone. Easy.

(Also: be aware, this is a horror story about a child predator and murderer - there's some pretty rough stuff going on in both story and film.)

The short story is a masterclass. 

It does that sparse prose thing I love where Joe Hill somehow says so much in the spaces between the words.

It's tight where it needs to be tight. It's vague where it needs to be vague. 

And the film... doesn't quite manage that balance.

Don't get me wrong - the film isn't bad. It is, in fact, good.

It's enjoyable, and from time to time it even adds things that are pretty damn cool (like The Grabber's mask.)

Ethan Hawke is vastly under-utilised, but when he's there, he plays the part so well. The kid actors also give pretty damn solid performances.

But - look, I'm not someone who tends to compare the adaptation too unfairly with the source material.

I understand that they're adaptations and that doesn't make them worse - just different.

I'm always very hesitant to say either book or movie is 'better' - they are their own things, with their own merits and weaknesses, but a shared core.

Maybe it's just because of how much I love the short story - but in this case, for me, the short story was better.

It felt like a lot of the padding that they added to the movie - the bullies, the psychic elements, even the sister's raincoat - were just too... Stephen King.

They were too Stephen King.

That's not a bad thing to be. But Joe Hill is not Stephen King - he's his son.

And that means he has his own voice - not everything has to be a reference to his dad's material.

The Black Phone short story is very distinctively Joe Hill, not Stephen King - to me, at least.

It stands on its own - and the characters are undoubtedly Joe Hill characters. 

Finney (our protaganist) has a sister, Susannah, that, despite never appearing fully on-page, still feels, to me, like a Joe Hill character. 

It's hard to explain the difference between that and a Stephen King character - it's like explaining the difference between different types of tree: a hazel is not the same as a fir tree. They're similar, but they're not the same.

In the film... the sister isn't a Joe Hill character; Gwendy (as she's renamed,) feels more like a Stephen King character. 

Not least because my brain kept conflating her with Gwendy from the Stephen King and Richard Chizmar novella Gwendy's Button Box.

I can only vaguely remember Gwendy's Button Box, it's been a long time since I read it, but I feel like the two Gwendy's have more in common, character-wise (though worlds apart plot-wise,) than Gwendy and Susannah do.

Hell, she feels more like Danny from The Shining than she does Susannah from The Black Phone.

Again, it's not that it's bad it's just... trying to be a Stephen King movie.

And it's not. It's a Joe Hill movie.

And that should've been enough.

The film is a decent horror flick. The short story is a freaking masterpiece.

...And that's why I was worried about how it might be adapted in the first place, to be honest.

Still, maybe it'll get more people to read Joe Hill's work - and that's far from a bad thing.

Have you seen The Black Phone? Or read it? What did you think?

Are you a Joe Hill fan?

Talk to me! 😊💬

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  1. I didn't realize this story was conceived by Joe Hill! How cool, and I like how he has made a name for himself separate from his father.

    1. I actually had read a bunch of Joe Hill stuff before I even read a Stephen King book - Hill is still my fave! :)


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