Masked killers and forced captivity have long been the bread and butter of the horror movie genre. Seeing a victim isolated, in the hands of an anonymous monster, is a tried and tested storyline that never really gets old. But, the big question is how, after seeing scaretastic classics such as Saw, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, do you make that classic captivity concept stand out and feel unique?
Directed by Scott Derrickson, The Black Phone plays on the childhood fear of stranger danger, as a ruthless part-time magician wearing a bleached-out devil’s mask stalks the streets of a quiet community. Packed with likeable characters, entertaining supernatural elements, and even sprinkles of humour, Derrickson manages to slightly subvert horror tropes – giving all of us scare fans what we want from a trip to our local cinemas: a new and thrilling experience.
But, saying that, Derrickson struggles to find his stride fully. With a few pacing issues, and some misplaced ghostly encounters, there is also the feeling that The Black Phone never reaches its full disturbing potential and just misses out on establishing itself as the latest addition to the genre’s list of recent standouts.
Based on the short story by Joe Hill, the son of the great horror maestro Stephen King, The Black Phone details the deadly series of teenage abductions in a small town in the 1970s. For weeks, The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has been kidnapping boys, terrorising the neighbourhood and putting the local authorities on edge.
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Finney (Mason Thames) and his clairvoyant sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) watch their neighbours continue to disappear until Finney, unfortunately, becomes the masked killer’s next victim himself.
Once abducted, the film takes a sharp supernatural turn, as the room Finney finds himself imprisoned in holds a mysterious black phone that seemingly allows him to communicate with the dead.
The fantastical elements layered on top of the classic captivity storyline make The Black Phone feel somewhat different to the horrors we have seen in the past that deal with captivity, such as Fede Álvarez’s 2016 flick, Don’t Breathe.
Typically you would expect the scenario involving a kidnap victim and serial killer to be strictly about the two, the tense psychological back and forth, and the pure anxiety and terror as an escape plan starts to form.
The Black Phone, on the other hand, tries to subvert expectations by pivoting toward the past victims of the Grabber as opposed to the killer’s actions in the present. The film isn’t afraid of theatrics, and soon Finney’s ordeal becomes overshadowed by the appearance of bruised and battered ghosts.
Derrickson’s attention on the supernatural elements in The Black Phone shifts focuses to the mystery of the killings and the strange phone instead of the Grabber himself, providing a fresh narrative outlook. But, let’s be honest, this story structure is a gamble.
As horror fans will see, the decision to treat the antagonist as a separated secondary character proves to be a double-edged sword for Derrickson’s flick.
On the one hand, The Black Phone is undeniably fun, and in many ways, it has everything a fan of the genre wants. Creepy killer? Check. Grim aesthetics? Check. Jump scares and heart-racing sequences? Double-check. But on the other hand, it is missing the full power and disturbing atmosphere that its concept demands.
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Ethan Hawke as the Grabber is fantastic. Fully embodying a disturbed and violent murderer, every scene he appears in gives you chills, and you can’t help but wish there was more of him in the film as a result. Hawke only appears in a handful of scenes.
Unfortunately, you never get enough screentime with him to fully appreciate his intimidating presence, or be able to lean into the terror that his character supposedly inflicts on Finney.
Similarly, the cinematography of The Black Phone is sharply grim, with cool colour tones giving off eerie depictions of the small town. The concrete basement Finney is locked in is bleak and terrifying yet suddenly feels misplaced once the ghosts of the teenage boys – wearing less than stellar makeup – suddenly appear and begin reciting monologues to the walls.
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So, in short, The Black Phone has the makings of something utterly fantastic, but unfortunately, all of its pieces just don’t fit together. However, it must be said that all these flaws rarely get in the way of your ability to sit back and enjoy what you are watching.
Derrickson has succeeded in making a film that is definitely worth any horror fan’s time. Is it a new classic? No, but, by hell, it is one fun ride.
The Black Phone hits theatres on June 24, 2022.
Ethan Hawke shines in a fun but an imperfect horror movie