Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeline McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ranson, and Ethan Hawke
The Black Phone is based on the short story of the same name by the great Joe Hill. The adaptation is co-written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, with Derrickson also directing. It’s a brutal and intense horror. In 1978 children are being kidnapped by someone commonly known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Finney (Mason Thames) becomes a victim and is taken to a basement dungeon where there is an unconnected phone on the wall. By using the phone he’s able to speak to the previous children who were kidnapped and starts to find a way to escape.
There is a lot of brutality in this film from before Finney is even kidnapped, and it’s tough to watch. There’s a scene early on where Finney’s friend stands up to a bully and beats him up, which is horrific to watch. It’s very real and you can feel every punch. Similarly, there’s a scene of domestic violence a little later which is also stomach-churning. The horror of real life is so much scarier and hard hitting than the main part of the film, which is still incredibly unsettling and creepy. The film perfectly balances the real and supernatural and emphasises what people are capable of.
Everyone in the film is perfectly cast. Ethan Hawke is genuinely scary and creepy as the kidnapper and you never really get a good sense of what’s going on in his head. Mason Thames is really good as Finney, and you’re completely invested in his character. He has to learn to stand up for himself throughout the story in order to survive. Madeline McGraw is one of the best things in the film as Gwen, Finney’s sister. She’s forced to be mature to navigate her home life and to try and protect her brother from bullies, at the same time she also has psychic dreams that help her search for her brother. Gwen is one of the best characters in the film and is very funny throughout.
There are points in the film that feel like they’re from the 1970s, with that grainy quality to the visuals. All the costumes and sets look great as well, and authentic to the era. To add to it is a stellar rock soundtrack, that is just great song after great song. At the centre of everything is a mystery that feels like it’s barely scratched. Both Finney and Gwen have an ability to experience things, that feels almost like The Shining. The Grabber seems to have the same ability and doesn’t understand it. Most of it goes unexplained but there’s enough there to make you think after the film ends and put the pieces together. Something that really stands out is the previous children tell Finney how they attempted to escape, such as digging a hole, but Finney must start the hole again, with no signs that there was one previously. Similarly, one of them tells him about a cable they ripped out of the wall, and Finney finds it in the same place in the wall. It’s like the whole dungeon is a test The Grabber is forcing children to participate in, resetting it after each one fails.
If there’s a fault to this film, and it’s really just nit-picking, it’s that it never reaches true terror and once things go supernatural there’s an overreliance on jump-scares. The scariest parts are what normal people are capable of, and when Finney is kidnapped and the supernatural element is introduced fully it’s not all-out-terrifying, just very creepy and unsettling. Saying that, the atmosphere is really great throughout and there are so many moments of pure tension that work really well.
The Black Phone is an excellent horror film. It may not be the scariest thing ever made, but it’s filled with nail biting tension that builds all the way through, the jump scares work, and the characters are really well written. It’s very creepy and really worth watching for any horror fan.
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