The Black Phone (15)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Scott Derrickson, C Robert Cargill
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke
Review: David Stephens
Must be something in the Maine tap water. Joseph Hillström King (or just "Joe") is the talented writing offspring of the great Stephen King and has plenty of offerings that have made a mark on genre TV and cinema. Locke and Key, Horns, and NOS4A2 have all had notable adaptations and his short stories, novels, and comic books continue to draw in readers. The Black Phone is actually a short story that struck a chord with Blumhouse productions. It passed into the directorial hands of Scott Derrickson after he left the set of the Doctor Strange sequel due to *ahem* "creative differences". After the obligatory Covid delay, it was bumped to a Summer release due to superlative audience reactions at Fantastic Fest and other previews. So, it's now screening on US and UK screens, and we made a call to see it.
It's 1978 in Denver, and kids are being abducted from the suburban streets and disappearing for good. The media have dubbed the mystery villain "The Grabber" (zero marks for originality), and the cops are clueless. This is the backdrop to the childhood of Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madelaine McGraw). Finn is a bullied in-betweener at school who obsesses over his teenage crush from a distance. Gwen is his no-nonsense younger sister who harbours sadness over their mother's suicide and is fiercely protective of her beloved brother. Their father (Jeremy Davies as Terrence) is a drunken asshole not above abusing the siblings when he gets upset. One day, Finn bumps into a creepy magician in the street (Ethan Hawke. Superb.), and things go to hell in a basement. The only glimmer of hope comes from the titular appliance… and maybe the hidden talents of someone else.
One beef before we start the critique (spoiler: It's bloody good!). And it's a prime T-bone steak that can be seen from space. When-oh-when will studio horrors stop revealing 99.9% of a film's narrative in the trailers. We can only imagine what it might be like to watch this film "fresh". Not being aware of the significance of the phone, that there are apparently messages from the grave, that one character has otherworldly powers, and that Hawke is such a creepy shit when he wears Tom Savini masks. Of course, we didn't get that opportunity because we saw the trailers during X and Firestarter screenings, and they gave ALL of that away. Studios. Stop it.
Anyhoo. Yeah. It is bloody good. Like X and some other recent films, there is a mini-backlash in the sniffy British media (which still actively hates horror for some reason), which goes against the high RT score. But despite trailer-trash and trash-talking, this is an excellent offering from the reliable Derrickson. It helps that Hill's source material provides a rich mine of genre tropes, but this is a rich and satisfying piece of genre storytelling that will have you leaving the cinema feeling glad that you're a horror fan. Oddly enough, for a story that is unapologetically about a sadistic child-murderer, it has a heart and offers a window on friendship, love, and compassion. Who said we're all "sickos" for watching scare flicks? Two things make this great. The performances and the narrative. Hawke has picked up most of the kudos so far, and it is a brilliant turn. His "Grabber" is part Joker and part- Child-Catcher (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and all wrongness. Tellingly, he is never given a name or even a back-story, although bits and pieces can be picked up. However, you are never in any doubt as to his ability for cruelness, and the masks (yes, they have been crafted by Savini) are the neatest way to underline his performance. Despite the content of the (*spit*) trailers, he doesn't dominate the proceedings quite as much as you may think. Nor does he caper around in a camp or pantomime manner.
The narrative is seen almost completely through the eyes of Finn and Gwen, which means that Thames and McGraw must carry the film to an extent. And much to their credit, they do so brilliantly. McGraw especially is a true talent to watch, stealing almost every scene she is in. Whether being threatened by her father or foul-mouthing the local police, she provides a feisty yet soulful interpretation of what could have been an also-ran character. By contrast, Thame is less "showy" but still brings the emotion and heart to a tough role and absolutely nails it in key scenes. The plot could have been a messy jumble of spooks, premonition, abuse, and gore. But it isn't. Instead, it's a cohesive and thrilling ride with a great build-up to a terrific final act and a satisfying final coda. There is some hokey misdirection that doesn't quite work, but despite that, you won't be disappointed by the time the credits roll. Even if you have misgivings about the subject matter and the amount of footage you've already seen, we can still thoroughly recommend this and hope that we see another studio horror as good as this in the remainder of the year.