Movie Review: ‘The Black Phone’

Director: Scott Derrickson

Cast: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal, James Ransome

Plot: A young boy, Finney, is abducted by the ‘Grabber’, who is already responsible for the disappearance of several local youths. Trapped in a locked basement and terrified, Finney begins receiving phone calls from the Grabber’s previous victims who want to help him escape.

Review: Much of The Black Phone relies on the strength of the performances coming from the two leads, Finney (Thames) and his precognitive sister Gwen (McGraw). Fortunately they are both fantastic actors and imbue their characters with layers of character and complex performances. On top of that, their dynamic of the reserved brother and outspoken sister puts me in mind of Dipper and Mabel Pines. If you squint, this is like watching the darkest episode of Gravity Falls ever produced.

Set in Denver towards the end of the 1970s, we set the scene of an idyllic and normal childhood of playing baseball and ducking bullies. Casting a shadow over the neighbourhood is a string of child abductions and disappearances, all attributed to ‘The Grabber’, who is already becoming mythologised among the children as a scary story. For Finney and Gwen life is further darkened by their abusive and alcoholic father (Davies). Gwen’s perchance for precognitive dreams is a particular sore spot for their father as he blames this ‘gift’ for their mother’s demise. When Finney becomes the newest missing child, Gwen feels pressured to try and find the Grabber and save her brother.

Meanwhile, Finney finds himself in a soundproof, locked basement and at the mercy of the Grabber (Hawke). Sporting a system of theatrical masks, the Grabber intends to keep Finney until he breaks his rules and can ‘punish’ him. The only feature of the basement is the titular black phone, a disconnected device that connects Finney with the spirits of previous victims. Together they explain what they did, what they left, and work to help Finney escape and bring their killer to justice.

All the base components of the story work extremely well. Hawke is terrifying, and working almost entirely behind his segmented mask, and unlike many horror movie killers we learn very little about him or his motivations. The Grabber is the lest explored part of this dark thriller, making his actions all the more unpredictable and inexplicable. The magician disguise, the masks, the belt, the basement…there’s much to be read into the character but nothing explicit. This is refreshing in a genre where the villains are often propped as the iconic central figure of a franchise. Finney and Gwen, meanwhile, are given a great deal of screen time to build their characters. We see how they manage their abusive home, where they fit in at school and get a sense of their values and outlook. Gwen’s outbursts of colourful language is one of the highlights of the movie, very fun stuff.

Having been based on a short story by Joe Hill, it does feel like they’ve had to work to fill out the run time. Rather than restricting the action to a single location we share time with Gwen and her lower quality film stock dream sequences. There’s also a couple of cops on the trail of the Grabber, and they encounter Max (Ransome) – a cocaine fuelled amateur detective also on the case and unaware that his brother is the culprit. This is a character we could spent some more time with, many hold off the reveal that he’s connected to the case. Bringing the three threads of Finney, Gwen and Max together at the end would have resulted in a similar finale.

We absolutely loved Derrickson’s previous horror films, especially Sinister. There’s recurring motifs of old film stock, restless child ghosts and haunted families present in The Black Phone, but it’s a more polished and accessible film for larger audiences. He does bring his love of jump scares to this outing, so be warned.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN