FILM REVIEW: The Black Phone is a tight, well-acted thriller

Scott Derrickson’s latest supernatural spook-fest made a solid connection with Zander Czerwaniw.

I think there is a part deep down in most people that believes they could escape a kidnapping. Whether it’s busting out the door at the right time, breaking through a window or tricking the captor; you might have already planned out a strategy, or simply decided you would try to wait it out. Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), the 13-year-old protagonist of The Black Phone, is faced exactly with this dilemma. In Scott Derrickson’s (Dir. Sinister, Doctor Strange) latest directorial adventure, we see a stellar cast bring Joe Hill’s 2007 short story to life. Set in small-town America in 1978, The Black Phone follows a boy’s abduction and how he and his sister use their supernatural gifts to look for a way to bring him home. While nothing phenomenal, it’s an entertaining horror that’s worth a night out.

Siblings Finney and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live in a small town in Colorado, where children have been disappearing for months. It seems all of them have vanished without a trace, one by one taken by the ominously-named figure ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke). It doesn’t matter if they were a karate champion, successful baseball batter or punk rocker – once taken, no one can find a way to escape. That is until Finney is kidnapped and starts to hear voices from a disconnected phone in his sound proofed cell.

At a tight running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, The Black Phone has no worry of overstaying its welcome. It’s a well-constructed film that delivers a few jump scares and some oddly placed laughs. Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay expands on Hill’s original short story in a way that doesn’t just flesh out the victims of the Grabber, but roots them in a world full of supporting characters. This extra length does add an element of absurdity to Finney’s story, making his cell seem less structurally sound than an old terrace. Derrickson and Cargill also work a lot more supernatural aspects into the narrative, such as the visions Finney’s sister experiences and the appearance of the ghosts of The Grabber’s previous victims.  While the plot doesn’t fully buckle under the weight of these elements, they do make it feel a little more cliché and ridiculous at points. There’s also possibly one too many jokes, as it does struggle to sustain and build formidable tension.

For a film that largely focuses on child actors, there is not a weak performance here. There are scenes that test the talents of Thames and McGraw as they confront the adults of their world. Thames’ Finney manages to interact with the spirits of past victims of the Grabber in a way that feels grounded and desperate, rather than cringey and ham-fisted. McGraw’s Gwen snaps back at a useless police officer with witty comebacks in one scene, and tragically must navigate living with her abusive father in the next. It’s also great to see a cast of teenagers being played by teenagers, and not stubbled late 20-something’s.

Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of The Grabber is chilling and saves the character from becoming a one-note horror villain. Whether acting with a mask, or parts of his face obscured, Hawke always manages to nail the lines. The uncertainty of what he did to the previous boys who were kidnapped haunts the film, as you wait and watch his every move. Yet, it feels the real villain of this film is Finney and Gwen’s father, played by Jeremy Davies. A man who has lost his wife to suicide, he indiscriminately enacts violence on his children and polices their behaviour. The scenes in the family home made me far more uncomfortable or scared than anything that happened in the depths of The Grabber’s basement. There were points during these scenes, however, where I was unsure of their purpose, or why they seemed to disappear in the third act.

Stylistically, there’s a lot to love here. Derrickson switches back and forth between heavy film grain to bring memories to the screen in an affecting manner. Additionally, the creepy opening credits sequence reminded me of films like Se7en. After his stint with Marvel, it’s refreshing to see Derrickson using all the tools in his visual toolbelt.

The Black Phone is a movie that I can imagine being a staple for Halloween movie nights for years to come, even if it does have its moments of goofiness or misplaced humour. The cast is strong, the visuals are great, and it provides just enough jump scares. While it’s not the creepiest or scariest film; Hawke, McGraw and Thames are the real highlights, and undeniably give it their all.

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