The Black Phone – Review

The Black Phone Mason ThamesThere probably can’t be too much more to be done with the missing kids genre trope in horror. From It to Stranger Things, we’re very familiar with small American towns being unable to prevent their young ‘uns from being taken. So what’s interesting about The Black Phone is that there is no particular “type” of kid going missing – school bullies, cool kids, weaklings, paper boys … they’re all fair game. And it’s that scattered approach that is part of the hook here.

Based on Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, The Black Phone is set in Denver in the early 1970s. Finney (Mason Thames) is something of an invisible kid at school. He doesn’t appear to have many friends, has no confidence around girls and is a routine target for bullies. His sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), by contrast, is chatty and brazen – often spewing hilariously vile verbal assaults. They live with their abusive father, who appears to be grieving the loss of his wife and his job – seeking solace in the bottom of a bottle.

Of course, lots of kids have gone missing and local newspapers have not so sensationally nicknamed the kidnapper as “The Grabber”. Gwen keeps having very strange dreams about the case and needs to work out what they mean very soon – because it’s not long before Finney is “grabbed”.

Writer / director Scott Derrickson (along with co-writer Robert Cargill) have done a really excellent job in creating a well-paced, thoroughly tense horror that doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s one hour forty-three minute run time is spot on in terms of being able to amp up the thrills, develop the characters and create an interesting narrative.

This is bolstered by the solid performances from the lead actors. Ethan Hawke, who proved himself to be a deliciously devious nemesis in Moon Knight, is quite unsettling here. What’s so great about his character – unnamed, just referred to as “The Grabber” – is that he has no sad back story explaining his actions. He’s just a bad guy. The devil masks he wears are literally just to scare his poor victims even further – he’s going to kill them anyway, so it’s not for the sake of protecting his identity. The way he kidnaps them is brutal. The scene where Finney tries to creep out of the basement and up the stairs, only to be greeted by his hulking, half-naked frame is deeply frightening. This is a character picking off kids for sport.

The Black PhoneMason Thames is excellent as Finney. You can really feel his frustration as he attempts to escape his captor. His tears and exasperated sighs feel very, very real. Madeleine McGraw turns in an equally powerful performance. The scene where she is being beaten by her dad is disturbing in its veracity and her squeaks for mercy are heartbreaking. The pair play off each other incredibly well – it’s like they are trauma bonded – and are very impressive young leads.

There are not a lot of jump scares here – although one or two moments may well cause you to jolt a little – but that’s not really the point of the film. It’s a horror that leans into being a detective thriller, an escape room conundrum and an exploration of trauma. In essence, it doesn’t need the jump scares. You’re so invested in helping Finney piece together a plausible escape route that that is where all the tension and thrills come from.

What this film does do is make you wonder what Scott Derrickson Multiverse of Madness would have turned out like. A proper Marvel horror would have been so refreshing. The Black Phone is very dark and doesn’t shy away from hard hitting topics such as grief and abuse (the former of which being Wanda’s main driver in the Doctor Strange sequel). The anonymous villain is like a cat, toying with a baby bird, allowing it to think there is a chance to fly away before crushing it and eating it. It’s absolutely simmering with tension from start to finish. We don’t need his motivations, we’re too busy trying to work out how Finney can leave his soundproofed basement fortress.

The Black Phone is a thoroughly entertaining film. It’s perhaps not quite the out and out horror that the trailers portray, rather it’s more a blend of genres with heaps of tension. The young leads are excellent and it’s great to see more Ethan Hawke villainy. It’s compactly paced with plenty of thrills and frustrations to keep you … on-hook.

The Black Phone is now playing in cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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