Review by James Lindorf
After a case of “creative differences” led to director and co-writer Scott Derrickson departing from Marvel’s Dr. Strange sequel, he returned to his horror roots with “The Black Phone.” Derrickson is again working with his frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill after they initially partnered on the script for “Sinister.” This time they are back to adapt the 2004 Joe Hill short story of the same name. This Blumhouse supernatural thriller hopes to grab your attention when it is released in theaters around the country on June 24th.
Phones have a long history in horror films. Killers have used them to taunt the police or their potential victims. Modern movies often have to deal with cellphones and how to break them, block their signal, or several other issues to keep victims from finding help. “The Black Phone” is set in 1978, so cellphones are not an issue, but more importantly, it flips the genre on its end by making the phone an instrument of survival.
13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) is a reserved kid whose best friend is his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). The two live with their single father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), in a community north of Denver. Derrickson establishes a grim mood right from the opening credits that feel like an homage to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” During the day, the kids must deal with bullying, dodging an abundance of schoolyard fights, only to return home to an alcoholic and occasionally physically abusive father. While that would be plenty for a gritty coming-of-age tale, there is one more thing the kids have to fear, “The Gabber.”
Homemade posters bearing the names and images of at least half a dozen missing kids cover the walls, fences, and light posts they pass daily to and from school. One Friday afternoon, on his way home from school, Finney becomes the abductor’s latest victim. Grabbed off the sidewalk, Finney is dumped in a soundproof basement with nothing, but a bare mattress, a broken phone, and what you hope are rust-stained walls. The long disconnected phone will connect Finney to the previous victims providing his only hope of survival.
Terrorizing Finney is Ethan Hawke in the most terrifying role of his career. “The Grabber” wears a mask inspired by the happy and sad drama masks and ornate samurai masks that display his fluctuating emotional state and dark intentions. Ethan Hawke is no stranger to working with Derrickson, having also starred in “Sinister.” After a second spectacular outing, there is no doubt they are a great pair that should continue to find great success together. Derrickson proves his skills don’t end at setting up an intense atmosphere but that he is a great director of actors. Working with a four-time Oscar® nominee may not be that challenging, but Thames, who is making his feature film debut, and McGraw are as fantastic as Hawke. Their casting was crucial to the film as they were tasked with carrying 90% of the film.
“The Black Phone” goes for a few jump scares, but to me, it falls more in the thriller category than horror. It is the best blend of physical and supernatural suspense in years, but it struggles to make the most of that atmosphere. The middle stretch of the film starts to feel a bit repetitive, but it builds to an exciting climax that had my audience clapping.
“Happy Death Day” found great success in bringing the “Groundhog’s Day” time loop trick to the horror genre, and “The Black Phone” puts its own spin on that by letting Finney learn from the past lives of others. “The Black Phone” is a must-see for what it introduces to the horror genre and its filmmaking quality. It earns a score of 4.5 out of 5 from me.
Cast: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone and Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Based on the short story by Joe Hill
Producers: Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Executive Producers: Ryan Turek, Christopher H. Warner