CAST: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, E. Roger Mitchell
RUNNING TIME: 102 mins
BASICALLY…: A boy (Thames) is abducted by a child killer (Hawke), but receives help via a mysterious phone…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Joe Hill’s 2004 short story The Black Phone is an unsettling read; in just thirty pages, Hill manages to convey a genuine sense of dread and fear that evokes both the supernatural and terrifyingly human aspects of Stephen King (a fitting comparison, seeing how Hill also happens to be his son), leaving the reader completely unable to put the story down or think about anything else in the moment.
It’s certainly left an impression on director and co-writer Scott Derrickson, whose adaptation (co-written by regular collaborator C. Robert Cargill) is an intriguing expansion of the short story that doesn’t sacrifice its chilling components, while also offering some entertaining thrills which neatly compliment Hill’s writing. It is also, technically as well as ironically, the year’s most engaging King adaptation so far (pushing Firestarter even deeper into the incinerator).
Set in 1978 suburban Colorado, a mysterious masked figure known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has been abducting children across the neighbourhood, putting everyone on reasonably high alert. His latest victim is 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), whom the Grabber traps in a soundproof basement with only a mattress and a disconnected black phone by his side. Soon, however, Finney begins hearing the phone ring, and on the other end are the voices of the Grabber’s past young victims, who offer some useful advice to Finney as he desperately tries to find a way to escape the basement and free himself from the Grabber’s grasp. Meanwhile, Finney’s younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is – in one of many nods to Stephen King – inexplicably psychic, and conducts her own investigation into her brother’s disappearance, using her powers to locate him and potentially others.
The King influence is clear from the start, as Derrickson and Cargill spend a lot of time introducing several of the famed author’s most identifiable tropes (including, but not limited to, kids that have psychic powers, the unexplained supernatural phenomena of the titular item, and even the alcoholic/abusive parent) in a routine fashion across a slower-paced first act. While some may be a little impatient during this initial section, it is a tactical decision to spend this part of the film just watching these kids go on about their day, witnessing fights at school, being targeted by bullies and so on, because the writers are dedicated to giving these characters enough compassion and likeability to make you really root for them later on. The two performances from Mason Thames, impressive in his debut feature role, and Madeleine McGraw, who steals entire scenes with some amusingly vulgar language, are also strong enough to carry these early scenes where they are in such horrible situations before Ethan Hawke even shows up.
When he does, that’s when The Black Phone turns into both a pretty faithful adaptation of Hill’s original short story, and also a rather chilling tale of purely human horror (with a dash of the supernatural) in its own right. Derrickson uses his time carefully to build up the suspense as Finney’s captor keeps playing this sadistic game where this intimidating-as-hell villain – with one hell of a creepy mask that has interchangeable facial expressions – is, for all intents and purposes, just screwing with this poor kid; a couple of times, he intentionally leaves the basement door unlocked so Finney can think he has a chance of escaping, only it’s very much not the case as we find out in some unsettling imagery. This villain is made all the more chilling by Ethan Hawke and how much fun he is clearly having in this part, where he gets to be playful but in that really creepy and unnerving way where you’re shivering whenever he laughs at his own material. You’re never quite sure what his real intentions are, even as things start to wrap up, but the mere presence of this character is already enough to leave you feeling so uneasy every single time.
Derrickson does a good job of making you really intrigued as to where this story ultimately ends, and even when the film threatens to turn more into pure stock horror territory – there are a few unnecessary jump scares, while some supporting characters feel out of place in an otherwise disturbing environment – you’re still invested by how strong the storytelling is, as well as the growing uncertainty that hangs over everything. It’s a fun movie to just have a good time with, and lends plenty of credibility to Joe Hill as a creative type who can easily remove himself from his more famous father’s shadow, but is still humble enough to show his most pure creative influences in every corner of his work.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Black Phone is an entertaining horror based on Joe Hill’s chilling short story, which director and co-writer Scott Derrickson adapts faithfully while adding some strong humanity to some of the characters, as well as an extra helping of intimidating villainy by Ethan Hawke who is having a great time as the sadistic killer at the centre of everything.