The Black Phone

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

The Black Phone
dir Scott Derrickson
scr Scott Derrickson, C Robert Cargill
prd Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson, C Robert Cargill
with Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, E Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal, James Ransone, Rebecca Clarke, Miguel Cazarez Mora, Brady Hepner, Jacob Moran, Tristan Pravong
release US/UK 24.Jun.22
21/US Universal 1h42

hawke davies ransone

Is it streaming?

thames and mcgraw
There's a solid attention to detail that makes this horror thriller intriguing right from the start. Based on a Joe Hill story, it's a cleverly concocted mystery with a surge of magical realism woven in, plus rather a lot of extreme violence. Director Scott Derrickson spends time deepening the characters and feelings, rather than making the film either suspenseful or scary. But it's infused with properly unsettling menace.
In 1978 Denver, teen Finney (Thames) is badly bullied at school, and home is even worse with his abusive single dad (Davies), although his feisty sister Gwen (McGraw) doesn't put up with much. Meanwhile, someone nicknamed "The Grabber" (Hawke) is kidnapping local boys. Not long after Finney's friend and protector Robin (Mora) disappears, Finney is captured. But in the Grabber's basement, a disconnected phone rings, and the voices of previous victims offer Finney hints that might help him survive this. Meanwhile, Gwen is having prescient dreams that catch the attention of detectives (Mitchell and Rudeseal).
Early scenes are infused with a superb 1970s vibe, allowing the teens to use properly colourful language as they clash with grown-ups and each other. This is both witty and harsh, especially the bullies' various attacks. Once Finney is imprisoned, the tone gets much darker, honing in on his harrowing experience as these sometimes ghostly embodied voices encourage him to fight for himself. And of course, the more we see of the Grabber, the more horrifying he becomes.

Hawke is terrific as a psychotic man-child who alternates between disarmingly sweet and freakishly insane. Wearing a mix-and-match devil's mask that changes expressions, Hawke uses his whole physicality effectively. As Finney, Thames has engaging presence as a quick-thinker who has spent his life being pushed around. His scenes with the show-stealing McGraw superbly evoke the dynamic between siblings who have developed ways to survive such a grim situation. And Davies brings some complexity to a somewhat thankless role.

Finney's and Gwen's supernatural visions sometimes feel like a narrative cheat, but they add a kick to the characters' story arcs, ultimately making Gwen the story's true alpha protagonist. Startlingly offbeat personal touches fill the screen, making the film more involving than terrifying. There may only be one sequence that's genuinely suspenseful, but Derrickson has fun with jolts and some gross-out moments before building to a perhaps unnecessarily hyper-brutal finale. The message seems to be that you need to be a monster yourself to survive in this world.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 15.Jun.22

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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall