Review: The Black Phone

Director: Scott Derrickson

Stars: Mason Thames, Ethan Hawke, Madeleine McGraw

Denver, Colorado in October of 1978. Conceivably, Michael Myers is terrorising Haddonfield a thousand miles away, but here the name feared by kids and adults alike is “The Grabber”. So nicknamed by the press, there’s a man cruising the neighbourhoods in a black van abducting children who are never seen again. The ensuing tension is pervasive like a storm waiting to break. The Black Phone is pocked with physical violence. Adults beating on their kids, and kids taking on these cues, lashing out at one another.

Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are psychically gifted; a trait inherited from their mother and despised by their violently alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies, continuing his stalwart efforts to have the worst hair in whatever he’s in). Gwen has prophetic dreams, but our focus is on Finney, who is struggling to stand up to bullies at school when he is swept off of the streets by Ethan Hawke’s mask-wearing menace.

Stephen King has quite famously given us a number of ghoulish coming-of-age tales that have become part of the cultural lexicon (CarrieIT etc). The Black Phone – based on a story by his son and author in his own right Joe Hill – goes to show that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Having parted ways with Marvel and the Doctor Strange films, Scott Derrickson returns to horror as though he never stepped away, bringing the sensibility of Sinister and retaining a couple key members of the same cast (Hawke is here, but so too is James Ransone in a barmy small role). Where Sinister used grainy Super-8 film snippets to display malign terrors, The Black Phone weaponises it’s potency for nostalgia. Gwen’s dreams are rendered as reconfigured memories that look like home movies.

Still, her terrified psychic sleuthing to find Finney is but a B-story to his lived ordeal in the basement of The Grabber; a maniac whose changing kabuki mask belies a wealth of volatile personalities. Finney’s prison is equipped with the titular telephonic device; out of order, save for the spirits of The Grabber’s previous victims who dial Finney clues to his escape from the great beyond. Through this device, The Black Phone depicts young people empowering one another. It’s like Stand by Me met The Silence of the Lambs.

Jonathan Demme’s horror thriller proves a key influence in more ways than one. The upstairs/downstairs dynamic of dominance is there plainly, but The Black Phone orchestrates a misdirect straight out of it’s predecessor. So blatantly so, in fact, that it’s guessable way before the pay-off.

Regardless of this, Derrickson keeps us on our toes well enough throughout. By and large his young stars are promising finds (Thames especially), while his script (co-authored with regular collaborator C. Robert Cargill) only really trips up when it plays school-age puckishness for comic effect. Gwen’s potty-mouth outbursts to her seniors play wildly out of character, more in-keeping with the sassier vibe of a Shane Black flick. More rewarding is how Finney’s seeming failures to escape coalesce into new opportunities come the final act.

Throughout Gwen prays to Jesus, rebuking him for his inaction, while Finney receives direct contact from ethereal forces that allow him the means to save himself. Given their sibling connection, might the latter be the manifest answer to the former’s plea? By dividing the story as it does, The Black Phone masks its own immediate spiritualism, while conflating religious belief with other such unproven forces that exist in potential via our fears, dreams and imaginations. ’70s setting aside, it feels like an old-school horror yarn, with only a couple of (admittedly effective) tilts to modern jump-scare tactics. The psychology of Hawke’s baddie is sketched just enough. Derrickson understands that overt explanations often don’t help horror, and his repeated references to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre underscores this. Hawke – a remarkably unpretentious actor – has fun here, and his kook colours the tone of the whole.

It all wraps up neatly enough (never trust a second home owner), but this is mainstream studio horror, and The Black Phone rests on the conceit that what is dead may never die. Given this, don’t be overly surprised if there’s a sequel or prequel already in the works somewhere, dependent on box office returns of course.

7 of 10

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