Review: The Black Phone

The best horror films don’t often show everything death-related in its gruesome, gory glory, and it’s the power of suggestion that can make more of a mark. The Black Phone isn’t violence-free, but with a selection of excellent performances and a thoroughly greasy, grim 70s aesthetic, it partners the all-too-real horrors humanity visits on itself with a supernatural tinge.

In the streets of Denver’s suburbs in the late 1970s, a delightful individual known only as “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) abducts kids and teenagers, causing a local panic among schoolchildren, parents and police alike. Teenage boy Finney Blake (Mason Thames) is the latest abductee, but discovers that an unplugged black phone in the cellar he’s being kept in keeps ringing; while his fiery younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) experiences strange dreams that aid her search for him.

Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson (who decided to make this after leaving Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness), The Black Phone is adapted from a short story by Joe Hill, an author who you may or may not know is the son of a certain Stephen King. Hill’s books tread the same ground as his dad’s, but often feature a more modern edge, though are no less disturbing. Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill utilise Derrickson’s own grim memories of growing up in a similarly disturbing environment in the 70s, adapting Hill’s story but making the setting and time period a key plank of the film’s atmosphere.

Best-known for having directed Doctor Strange, Derrickson’s roots are in horror, and he’s clearly at home utilising his own childhood recollections and love of the genre here for maximum discomfort and tension-building. While you could see the supernatural angles of this film as ridiculous on reading about them, Derrickson and Cargill take Hill’s approach and give it a weighty, hardbitten realism, while evoking his dad’s wealth of similar stories.

What’s clear is Derrickson delights in building atmosphere and hinting at the horrors he can’t or won’t show – sure, there are outbursts of violence, but the air of menace and the grim mood brings to mind a lot of 1970s horror cinema in that what you imagine is worse than what you see. Child abduction is an unspeakable crime as it is, without all else that might entail, and so as an audience we’re already primed for something grim – we don’t ever see it, but the performances and the mood give us all the horror we need.

Returning to that idea of the 1970s setting giving the film such a distinct feel, Brett Jutkiewicz’s bleached, colourless cinematography evokes not only films of that era but those set in it, like Zodiac, and leave you feeling as if that entire decade was lived in a watered down, grey gloom. Dreams within this film are shot on grainy, older cameras too, only adding to the feel of a creepy old home movie, while the lighting in the cellar prison, characters’ homes and even the school make everywhere feel desperate, drained of life, and feeling disturbingly similar – nowhere feels safe, as the storyline bears out.

That feeling of unpredictability doesn’t extend to the entire plot, but tension and pace are maintained well thanks to the editing of Frederic Thoraval, who cuts between two or three plotlines to give us a strong sense of impending evil or action. Surprisingly, Mark Korven’s score felt as sparse and synthetic as Blade Runner 2049 at some points, all sinister and thudding synths, while 70s songs add to the period feel.

What makes the film sing, though, is the acting on show, from the child actors to the villain. Mason Thames is worth mentioning prominently given he has to carry the film on his own, and this young actor is excellent. He’s got a really distinctive face and intense stare, and that coupled with a great acting range mean he holds his own even against Hawke – he reminded me of Harrison Ford and River Phoenix, just to give you an insight into the sort of performance he gives.

Hawke, however, plays completely against type as a truly odious, disturbing serial killer here. Utilising Japanese kabuki masks to hide his identity from his victims – and to toy with them, changing parts based on his mood – the actor marks his first cinematic villain role in memorable style. He emanates sleaze and disgust with only his posture and his eyes half the time, and this almost passive performance (unblinking at times) transforms his distinctive voice into something disgusting. Without him, this wouldn’t have been so memorable – I hope he doesn’t limit villainous roles to this.

There’s a third top performance here too, from the too-young-to-be-this-good McGraw, who’s the comedic and audience-pleasing part of the film. She has one of the funniest lines of any film you’ll see this year, sold with absolute conviction and helping to puncture the unrelenting mood – but she’s a really strong performer too, particularly affecting in some frankly horrifying domestic violence scenes that hammer home the point that the Grabber isn’t the only monster threatening children.

That’s thanks to the pathetic yet terrifying Jeremy Davies (notably of Lost) who plays the kids’ alcoholic, broken and abusive father Terrence. It’s a stark performance that’s horrible and vulnerable all at once, but the scenes of violence are genuinely uncomfortable to watch even given the rest of the movie. Davies’ role culminates disappointingly in some ways, but then an audience’s expectations for closure (and retribution) don’t always pan out – and perhaps shouldn’t, given real life doesn’t work like that.

Outside these four, James Ransone makes a zany and coke-fuelled cameo as a local trying to find the killer himself, the standout actor from It Chapter Two bringing along that uncontrollable, frenzied energy and connecting this again to King. Finally, E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal are the helpless, very 1970s male cops bringing laughs and a jaded sense of being in over their heads; while a series of memorably grim cameos from young kids are notable, and Miguel Cazarez Mora makes an impact as Finney’s friend Robin, a brutal and sociopathic bully who’s a great pal – not a threat – to the protagonist, in a remarkably strange twist from the norm.

Rather than going for the usual horror fare of ever-diminishing sequels this summer, I recommend seeing The Black Phone (while it’s still out): it’s a nasty little film packed with atmosphere, well-acted and carefully marrying supernatural and the all-too-real horrors together effectively

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