Universal Pictures presents The Black Phone in UK cinemas from 22 June 2022.
Finney Shaw, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little 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.
At the start of 2022 I made a conscious decision that I would read more. Not that comic books don’t count, but I can recount the number of novels I read in 2021 using only one hand. In undertaking that mission I’ve read two horrors by the fantastic Joe Hill. So colour me hugely surprised to learn that Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson was turning one of Hill’s shorts in to a movie.
That film arrives in UK cinemas tomorrow and brings with it a loose adaption of Hill’s original text of the same name. Enhanced using some of Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill’s own life experiences, The Black Phone is certainly a sinister cinematic experience.
The film jumps on the bandwagon of period horror made popular by Stranger Things and the recent remake of IT. Sidebar, IT was written by Stephen King who happens to be Hill’s father. Set in a Colorado suburb in 1978, the film focusses on Finney (Mason Thames), a school outcast who spends more time with his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) than he does with his peers. But around them kids are disappearing and rumours of a serial kidnapper (Ethan Hawke) have everyone on edge.
We learn a lot within a short space of time in act one. Derrickson and Cargill’s script painstakingly sets up the status quo in this small town. Mason and Gwen live with their drunk, abusive father (Jeremy Davies). His struggles with the death of their mother lead him to regularly beat his children before passing out in a drunken stupor. Mason is viciously bullied at school with only his sister and friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) to protect him.
There’s plenty to intrigue the viewer. Gwen has prophetic dreams of the kidnapper’s victims which bring her to the attention of local detectives. It also seems she inherited her ability from her mother. Then there’s the bond between siblings and how they cope with their father’s abuse.
Instead of focussing on these elements The Black Phone hones in on Finney and his kidnapper. Derrickson and Cargill choose to focus on the more straightforward kidnapping rather than indulging in the inherent darkness of this world. With the rest left for mere breadcrumbs, we’re forced to endure Finney’s experience rather than reflect on the life he potentially leaves behind. That may well be the overall point of the film. But given the effort made to show us what he is leaving behind the opportunity feels squandered.
Working in its favour is the amazing performance of both Mason Thames and Ethan Hawke. With the narrative squarely on their shoulders both sizzle in their respective roles. Considering his relative youth, Thames certainly brings some gut punching emotion to the screen. His desperate need to survive often gives way to insecurity and unease. All of which is effortless and
Hawke, meanwhile, disappears in to the role of Grabber. Thanks to the outstanding mask designs from Tom Savini he really is the stuff of nightmares. Various versions of the mask seemingly portray different emotions. For example, the smiling mask goes hand in hand with a more playful performance. It seems, at least for a time, to signpost potential multiple personalities from his character. However the is another avenue the film fails to explore. It is never explained why he kidnaps these kids or why he kills them. Nor is it explained why his victims are only male. He just simply does what he does. But in doing so Derrickson has easily created a new icon of horror.
If you’re able to kick back and simply accept the actions of the film’s characters then there is a lot to enjoy. As Finney desperately searches for escape he’s aided by the ghosts of other kidnapped boys. It leads to some of the film’s biggest jumps but also some strong emotional moments. Despite the bleak surroundings of the basement, the camera and lighting is able to create some stunning imagery. Characters lurk in shadowy corners. Angles help expand the contract Finney’s world. It keeps the visual fresh when they could easily stagnate in the one location.
Throughout the back half of the story there’s a incredibly well defined sense of rooting for Finney to survive. It culminates in a harrowing finale which serves the characters well given the circumstances.
Shot beautifully by Scream 2022’s cinematographer Bret Jutkiewicz, The Black Phone doesn’t hold back. There are sporadic scenes of incredibly strong violence throughout, bolstered by a heavy soundscape. In this respect the filmmakers really pull no punches and create a compelling experience for the viewer. Mark Korven’s musical score is also an effective tool in dialling up the tension.
As the dust settles, it feels like Derrickson came so close to hitting the mark with The Black Phone. But as Finney and Gwen embrace their crying father it seems the script chose schlocky “awwwwww” moments over real life consequences. Surprising given the experiences of Grabber’s victims.
The Black Phone infiltrates viewers nightmares thanks to a transcendent performance by Ethan Hawke. Teamed with incredibly compelling performances from Madeleine McGraw and Mason Thames, this adaption of Joe Hill’s short is chilling but ultimately lacking in context.
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