Directed By Scott Derrickson
Starring – Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke
The Plot – Finney Shaw (Thames) is a shy but clever 13-year-old boy who is abducted by a sadistic killer (Hawke) and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of no use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead-set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.
Rated R for violence, bloody images, adult language and some drug use
“The Black Phone” feels like a time machine with no real interest in stereotypical nostalgia. In crafting a narrative in 1976, Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill capitalize on the real life terror of increased child kidnappings with a supernatural thriller in design that breeds authenticity in the form of two men who lived through the time frame. Instead of showing us aspects of pop culture designs to gauge our interest and memory of the particular age, the duo zero in on a palpable grit to the presentation, and not just the seedy surroundings of a moldy basement dominating the story’s setting, but rather the honest portrayals of youth during the era that flourish seamlessly in the benefit of some of the best child performances that I have seen in a horror film in quite sometime. Despite the fact that a majority of the story persists from the confines of a basement, Thames and McGraw are up to the challenge, with the former dominating the tension and terrifying circumstance on his way to an evolution in arc that is easy to invest and get behind, and the latter registering an impeccable comedic timing and spellbinding precociousness that affords her character the power to take charge through adults who are more than disappointing in their lead by examples. That concept doesn’t pertain to every adult, however, as Hawke is terrifying as the story’s villain, “The Grabber”, but never in ways you would expect. Instead, there’s a nuance to his portrayal that requires Ethan to emote without the freedoms of a facial registry that here is constantly covered by an array of masks designed wonderfully from make-up legend Tom Savini, requiring him the emphasis in eyes and vocal deliveries in a possessed performance that radiates the chills by the dozen in his terrifying shedding of anything remotely resembling humanity. On the subject of those frights, nothing is ever cheap, instead earning its jolts with a supernatural element that simultaneously supports the terror without taking away the focus of the terrifying situation that has engulfed these children’s daily lives. Though abuse does play a vital role in the motivations of these child protagonists, there’s never anything overtly exploitative, instead illustrating what you don’t see as being twice as chilling as what you actually do, and when in tow with the benefit of cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz’s 8mm stylings surrounding character flashbacks, gives us a haunting simplicity with home made video emphasis that documents the despair without the need to ever overdo the unsettling impact. This is further supplanted with the air of the film’s tonal consistency, which while hopeful enough to never plague the audience with smothering helplessness, like in Derrickson’s previous film “Sinister”, while maintaining with it enough of a solution-less conflict to the problems at home that await in the perils of Finney and Gwen’s alcoholic and abusive father, regardless if they evade this menacing monster with a mask.
While nothing terribly tragic to the prominence that radiates endlessly throughout Cargill’s bone-chilling script, there are a couple aspects to its storytelling that I wish were tightened up upon a corresponding redraft. The first is within the plight of its connection to the outer world, in which Finney talks with deceased child victims who themselves carry a spotty forgetfulness in the afterlife that persists just enough to keep Finney from finding a solution. This aspect would be alright if it maintained consistency throughout, but considering these kids are remembering vital clues to the design of Finney’s possible escape, and somehow eluding their own identities, it slightly fumbles the execution enough to where the conveniences in the narrative become a bit obvious and consequentially jarring while getting sucked into the story, creating more problems with the device that is anything but convenient the longer it unravels. In addition to this, there’s one area of the script that I felt stretched credibility and authenticity a bit in its rendering, and that’s within the neighborhood influence of the various kidnappings. Though the film does occasionally attain consciousness and commentary in a few key investigation scenes, the impact is almost inconsequential, especially in the form of two useless detectives, who dismiss witnesses more than acknowledge them. It’s possible this was the intended purpose from Cargill to communicate more of the internal disconnect between adults and children in this established world, however I myself could’ve used further illustration of the foreground itself, which in turn would’ve made it a little more challenging for The Grabber to capture his prey.
Derrickson and Cargill put personal traumas on full display in “The Black Phone”, all the while easily showcasing the complications of childhood during the 70’s with the monsters of our everyday worlds. Though the film’s cellular plot device is full of inconsistent static in the developments it erratically pulls upon, the dynamic duo of Thames and McGraw are more than enough to maintain the connection throughout, with Hawke’s blood-curdling and transformative turn serving as the manifestation of everything their characters are continuously running from.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+