The Black Phone Review

After it was announced that Scott Derrickson would not be returning to direct the sequel to Doctor Strange, there was speculation over what he would do next. What he did was return to his horror roots, directing an adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone. Now I haven’t seen any of Derrickson’s previous horror films, but I was intrigued by this, especially after seeing the trailers so when the opportunity came to see an early screening, I jumped at it. I’m glad I did as this is a pretty effective horror film.

Taking place in 1978, the film focuses on Finney Shaw, a kid in a suburban Colorado town, who gets kidnapped by a serial killer known as The Grabber. Whilst held prisoner, Finney gets messages from the previous victims of The Grabber through the disconnected phone in the room he’s held in, with the calls offering advice to Finney on how to escape. At the same time, Finney’s sister Gwen experiences psychic visions which she uses to try and find Finney before it’s too late. What works well about the film is how well it’s paced as a horror film. It takes its time before Finney is captured to build a sense of dread in the town over the actions of The Grabber and to build up Finney as a character, showing him to have fears over standing up for himself, but also having to deal with an alcoholic father and wanting to protect Gwen from their dad’s alcohol induced rage. Through this, we get a better understanding of Finney which helps you empathise with his situation more. After Finney is captured, there is a well executed cat and mouse game between Finney and The Grabber, with the decisions Finney makes feeling smart and believable. You see all the stages play out in a realistic way and the way the calls are utilised brings in both a sense of dread as you’re not sure which one will be the last and there are hints for a dark fate for Finney if he’s not successful and helps to flesh out the world of the film by making the previous victims feel like actual people instead of props.

The performances as well add to the power of the film. Mason Thames has a difficult role to play as Finney, a lot of the time in the second half of the film being on his own and he does a great job here. He shows the fear and determination of Finney to escape believably, along with making his decisions feel believable for someone in that situation. The initial disbelief over the paranormal elements feels honest and he does good work at showing the initial awkward and isolated nature of Finney. Ethan Hawke as The Grabber meanwhile makes for an effective villain. He is in the mould of classic slasher villains, with little known about him, but this serves to make him a creepier presence as you’re unsure what he’s going to do next. This is also a difficult performance as Hawke is masked throughout the film, meaning he has to rely on body language and the tone of his voice, and Hawke uses these well to create an unsettling villain. It also helps that Hawke isn’t actually in the film that long, but you feel his presence throughout, allowing the times he is on screen to feel more impactful. Madeline McGraw and Jeremy Davies do solid work, fleshing out Finney’s family well and making the characters more rounded and less clichéd, Davies in particular turning what could have been a stereotypical abusive alcoholic into a relatively more tragic character, whilst McGraw also adds to the comic relief of the film. If there is a weak link in the cast, it’s James Ransone. It’s not that he gives a bad performance, but his role is under-defined, and given his more pivotal role in the third act, he needed a fair bit more screen time to develop the character so he didn’t come across as a tacked on element.

The technical elements of the film are well handled. Derrickson and DP Brett Jutkiewicz have a great grasp of horror and how to build suspense, using jump scares in the appropriate way and allowing the tension in the film to build naturally. This is also helped by the strong production design for The Grabber’s hideout, having the right dank feeling to create an unsettling environment, with this allowing the paranormal elements to be introduced into a scene effectively, creating believable flaws for Finney to exploit and an air that The Grabber could enter at any time. The unsettling feel is aided by the design of the masks The Grabber wears, each of them having enough features missing to create a unique, disturbing look.

Overall, I found The Black Phone to be an effective horror film. Whilst I think some of the characters could have used more screen-time and there are some bits of the ending that could have been developed more, Derrickson knows how to craft a creepy, unsettling atmosphere that is used to great effect, aided by strong performances from Mason Thames and Ethan Hawke, acting as a solid, disturbing horror film that makes great use of minimalist settings to create a powerful atmosphere.

My Rating: 4/5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s