REVIEW – “The Black Phone”

There’s something magical about the power of seeing an effective horror film in a dark theater with a packed audience who are as equally engaged and thrilled as you are. Seeing Sinister back in 2012 when I was only 15 was one of those films for me, and it was also the film that put director Scott Derrickson on my radar as both a genuine talent and a guy who could scare the living hell out of me. After a venture into blockbuster territory with Doctor Strange in 2016, he returns to his roots with The Black Phone – an eery, grungy, and deeply entertaining horror flick that, while based on a short story, feels deeply original and different than anything else getting a theatrical release at the moment.

The film takes place in 1978 in North Denver where horror films are all the rage and violence seems to be a super prominent thing that all the adults in town turn a blind-eye to, even in the midst of a creepy, mysterious serial killer named The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) kidnapping kids on a frequent basis. Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) is an easy target by the bullies at his school as he’s a little bit shorter and shyer than all the other kids, and it doesn’t help that him and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) have to live at home with their abusive and grief-stricken father.

All of this is quickly established and lays a great foundation for the rest of the film – most films that take place in the 1970s can divulge into nostalgia pieces, but Derrickson wisely chooses to show how dark and grimy this period of time truly was. And all of this is apparent before Finney is kidnapped by The Grabber, and the film spirals into a claustrophobic nightmare as he’s put in The Grabber’s basement with nothing but a mattress and a supposedly broken black landline phone – until it rings.

I won’t spoil the “twist” of what this movie is actually about in-case you somehow don’t know what the point of the black phone is, but I found all of the lore behind it to be really effective and it added a pretty surprising layer to the film that made it stand-out among the sub-genre of horror films focused on victims trying to break free from their captors. I also like that the film doesn’t stay primarily in the house with Finney and The Grabber, but we equally get as much with Gwen trying to find out what happened to her brother from the outside. This made the film truly never drag its feet and felt like it was constantly moving at every given minute.

Ethan Hawke isn’t in this quite as much as I admittedly would’ve hoped and when he is he’s behind different masks (albeit they’re pretty creepy masks) but Derrickson’s direction and the performances from all the kids do a lot of the heavy-lifting here. At any given point the film could’ve succumbed to more cliches, but I think it does a really great job of staying inventive and genuinely creepy from start to finish while also lacing in some really solid character work and a strong emotional core so that you actually care about the outcome of it all. This is easily my favorite film from Derrickson, and another great addition to the horror genre this year!


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