Written by Jack Ransom
It’s always refreshing to see a truly nasty and grisly slice of horror arrive out of the Blumhouse camp and I have no doubt that The Black Phone will be a staple horror talking point once it’s widely released. Immediately shooting Ethan Hawke’s delightfully twisted ‘Grabber’ to the forefront of instantly recognisable horror iconography, boasting surprisingly engaging and raw coming of age and family drama and Derrickson’s slick direction at the forefront. All of which work to (mostly) overshadow the occasionally clunky tonal shifts and thin, familiar narrative traits.
Director Scott Derrickson’s return to his horror roots after creative differences led him to leaving Marvel’s Doctor Strange sequel. The Black Phone sees Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), a teenager who is abducted by a sadistic killer (Ethan 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.
The film begins with a slow burn approach (with Hawke only properly fully emerging around 20 or so minutes in). With this originally being a short story, you certainly get the sense that Derrickson and co-writer Robert Cargill added more elements to help flesh out the characters. Though the writing isn’t always the sharpest (even bordering on melodramatic at times), the way fractured homelife, bullying and lingering aura of fear of the Grabber is presented is effective. After the kidnapping of Finney, the film quickly falls into a familiar structure and the investigatory side of the feature is largely bog standard (helped with the inclusion of a largely unexplained plot McGuffin character ability).
Tonally the film draws comparisons to Malignant. Switching between uncomfortable and brutal child violence and incredibly goofy needle drops. It’s not as seamless as it could be, but it certainly helps give the film a distinguishable identity. The hallucinatory film grain effect utilised throughout is effective and the cinematography cuts a blend between gritty true crime realism and shadow doused, supernatural tinged slickness. Though never outright scary (unfortunately Derrickson can’t escape the unnecessarily loud yet predictable jump scare tactic), the atmosphere is incredibly seedy and unnerving at points.
Hawke absolutely steals each scene he appears in (not quite enough in my opinion). A wheezing, giggling inherently creepy presence that absolutely showcases his physical and facial expression heavy capabilities. With the camera often just lingering on him sitting or standing and substantial emotion having to be solely delivered through his eyes due to the fantastically crafted mask being on for the majority. Mason Thames and Madeliene McGraw deliver really strong performances here, especially with the intensity of some of the material they have to face up against.
The Black Phone is certainly a call worth answering. Despite its shortcomings, of which mainly surround the jarring tonal shifts and clunky, on the nose dialogue. This is a devilishly fun, disturbing, effectively paced solid horror flick featuring a brilliant scene stealing performance from Ethan Hawke.