After helming the huge budgeted visual spectacle of 2016’s Doctor Strange, a film which personally at the time rekindled my interest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Scott Derrickson chose not to return to direct its sequel, passing the torch to fellow horror film veteran Sam Raimi. Derrickson along with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill instead reunited with actor Ethan Hawke and the three have celebrated the 10 year anniversary of their effective 2012 supernatural horror film Sinister with the equally creepy and disturbing new horror-thriller movie, The Black Phone.
Based upon a short story by Joe Hill, The Black Phone is set in the late 1970s and follows 13-year-old schoolboy outcast Finney (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw), as a serial child abductor dubbed ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) terrorises their neighbourhood.
After the disappearance of several of his friends, Finney himself one day is kidnapped and locked in a dark basement with the only real noteworthy feature of his surroundings is an old, disconnected phone hanging on the wall. Bizarrely, this phone begins to ring, giving Finney the ability to converse with The Grabber‘s previous victims and learn the information that they gathered before their time ran out. With the aid of this phone, as well as Gwen‘s own dreams of a clairvoyant nature, maybe Finney will be able to survive and escape where the others failed?
As stated before, Derrickson has created some amazing looking films in the past and The Black Phone is no different. While the filmmaking techniques don’t always put one in mind of watching a movie from the 1970s, the setting is perfectly realised by the production design by Patti Podesta as well as costume design from Amy Andrews. The creepy mask that The Grabber wears throughout the film with interchangeable mouth pieces depicting different emotions is especially creepy and is totally sold by an amazingly unpredictable performance by Hawke.
The child actors’ performances throughout the film start out mixed with some wooden dialogue. But the moment the drama kicked in, they all knocked it out of the park. Specifically, newcomer Thames, running the gambit of emotions in what is essentially the leading role above that of even Hawke. Special mention must also go to McGraw for her performance, who despite some parts of her script being based around the low hanging fruit humour of hearing a little girl swear, made for an intense scene of domestic abuse, which was hard to watch with her raw emotions on display, and this is well before her character’s brother is even kidnapped.
It came as no surprise to me to learn later that Joe Hill was Stephen King‘s son, as similar themes of child dread and fantasy horror were prevalent throughout the entire film, as well as some of the more weaker sides of his writing. As much as I enjoyed this film, it seemed that some of the characters and even the spiritual aspects of the story needed to be fleshed out more.
While Hawke gives a great performance, little is done in the script to flesh The Grabber out as an actual character. Likewise, Gwen‘s Shining-like abilities to see visions of The Grabber‘s victims may be something that works within Stephen King‘s universe of interconnected tales, however, in a standalone film it somewhat distracts from the story rather than adds to it.
At its heart, The Black Phone is a horror film. While rough around the edges the film succeeds in presenting an interesting and at times gruesome take on the genre. Fans of Stephen King’s IT will feel right at home enjoying this twisted tale of the macabre.
The Black Phone will be in Australian cinemas everywhere from July 21.