22nd Jun2022

‘The Black Phone’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal, James Ransone | Written by Scott Derrickson, Robert Cargill | Directed by Scott Derrickson

Ethan Hawke reteams with Sinister director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) for this ’70s-set serial killer thriller with a supernatural twist or two. Despite some flaws, it’s an enjoyable slice of retro-set horror.

The film opens in North Denver, 1978, where 13 year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is repeatedly bullied, despite having some proficiency on the baseball field. With no mother and an alcoholic, frequently abusive father (Jeremy Davies), Finn’s only support comes from his precocious younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who’s prone to dropping colourful f-bombs.

However, their lives are upended when a local, mask-wearing serial killer known as The Grabber (Hawke) kidnaps Finn and locks him up in a basement. Gwen finds herself having strange dreams that might give a clue to her brother’s whereabouts, while Finn discovers a disconnected black phone in the basement that suddenly starts ringing. But who could be calling?

Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are both terrific in the lead roles, creating a believeable sibling relationship that is genuinely moving. McGraw, in particular, proves a real scene-stealer (the sequence where she kicks back against some less-than-sharp cops is one of several highlights), while Thames has a soulful vulnerability that’s used to strong effect.

As for Hawke, playing a bad guy for the first time, he mostly lets the mask do the work (you barely see him without it), and The Black Phone suffers a little for not giving much insight into who he is beneath the mask. In fairness, Hawke’s suitably twitchy and weird (in a way that would make him an immediate suspect in the neighbourhood), but it’s all surface and no depth.

The script is both commendable and frustrating in its refusal to explain either Gwen’s dreams or the existence of the phone. At any rate, it’s intriguing that the supernatural elements are all on the side of good for once, with Hawke’s character being blissfully unaware of his spooky telephone.

Admittedly, there are more than a few logic problems, not least the fact that Hawke parks his very suspicious-looking black kidnap van in broad daylight outside his house, while it seems like the cops could have saved themselves a lot of time just by asking about someone buying large quantities of black balloons.

On a similar note, the unexplained mask isn’t nearly as scary as the film seems to think it is, and mostly just seems like an excuse to hide Hawke’s face – if the different detachable parts are meant to indicate something about Hawke’s character or state of mind, then the script gives nothing away in that regard.

Derrickson’s direction is solid throughout, particularly in the enjoyable look, feel and detail of the period setting. To that end, it gives just enough of a Stranger Things vibe to merit the comparison, without being a blatant rip-off.

Ultimately, the most notable thing about the film is the fact that the gore and violence are much scarier in the (relatable, terrifying) scenes of kids beating the crap out of each other in the playground, though the film does build to an eminently satisfying final act, gore-and-violence-wise. In short, this is worth seeing in a forgettable Friday night horror sort of way, but don’t hold your breath for a franchise.

*** 3/5

The Black Phone is released in UK cinemas this Friday, June 24th.

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