The Black Phone – Film Review
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke
Previews on June 18th In cinemas from June 24th
If you’re not familiar with the name Joe Hill you should be. He is the son of legendary award-winning horror author Stephen King and a prolific and award-winning horror writer in his own right. You’ve probably heard of some adaptations of his work such as TV shows Nos4a2 and Locke & Keye and he has quite the pedigree. So it’s a promising sign that this is based on one of his short stories. And also it stars Ethan Hawke. A fine actor who has evolved from teen idol into a very interesting character performer and who has been quite prolific of late. Both of these facts, combined with a love of Blumhouse production’s work meant I was excited about this film, despite the disturbing subject matter.
It is set in 1978 in a neighbourhood that is in turmoil after five young boys have gone missing – snatched by an insidious figure known as the Grabber (Hawke). When Finney Shaw (Thames) finds himself the sixth victim of the shadowy psycho he is convinced he won’t get out alive. Trapped in a dank basement, he can’t find any way to escape from his predicament as his captor toys with him. But on the wall of his cell is an old black phone that has had its wires cut and doesn’t work. It serves as a lifeline for Finney when he starts to receive calls on it. And as the phone rings nightly he gets aided by otherworldly forces who work together to help him escape his jailer and exact revenge on their murderer for their suffering.
I could nit-pick at this. There are plot holes and things that don’t work, but I expect that of a horror shlocker, which is what this is. If you’re not a fan of the genre this won’t change your mind. There are some deeply disturbing scenes (not always featuring the “monster”) and it really will make you squirm and jump out of your seat while also, thankfully, providing some laughs and light relief along the way.
Hawke is extremely creepy as the masked villain. I’ve seen people in horror fan groups comment that the poster art reminds them of horror master Lon Chaney’s lost classic London After Midnight. It also extols visions of The Joker, Jigsaw and even Michael Myers – hiding behind a mask is a common horror trope. We never get an explanation for why he wears them but it is suitably grotesque, and kudos to an actor of Hawkes calibre for putting vanity aside to spend most of the film with his face covered (other actors have refused similar – I’m looking at you Sylvester Stallone in Judge Dredd),
Mason Thames is a revelation, he’s absolutely fantastic in the role. As is Madeleine McGraw as his sister Gwen. Indeed all of the young actors are perfectly cast and handle the dark material with aplomb. Although there is a somewhat Stranger Things feel about the whole concept (with a smidge of IT thrown in for good measure) and I have no doubt director Scott Derrickson was aware of that, even inadvertently.
This is grimy and grainy and perfectly captures a 70s vibe. It is creepy and odd and leaves you with so many questions, but it is actually really enjoyable and entertaining. It will send shivers down your spine and a lot is left unexplained. I fully expect a Grabber prequel but for now, this will make you shiver and quiver and squirm while also entertaining you.