The Black Phone (2021)

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Written by Joe Hill (short story), Scott Derrickson (screenplay), C. Robert Cargill (screenplay)

After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims. (IMDB)

Never talk to strangers.

Very good advice for anyone, young or old. Especially strangers that look as odd as Ethan Hawke in Scott Derrickson’s latest scary offering. If they have a van full of black balloons and offer to show you a magic trick, then you definitely need to give them a wide berth.

Unfortunately, Finney (Mason Thames) doesn’t figure this out quick enough and becomes the latest victim of The Grabber, a kidnapper terrorising a small town in the ’70s. Finney is the 6th victim that we know of and he is taken, like the others, to a grimy basement to await whatever fate The Grabber holds for him.

While trapped in the basement, an old, disconnected black phone rings and Finney begins a series of conversations with The Grabber’s previous victims, who all give him advice and the determination to try and escape.

At the same time, his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) has visionary dreams that seem to reveal secrets about The Grabber otherwise unknown to the general public. This generates interest in her from the local police and she begins her own investigation. In her dreams she sees snippets of clues and she tries to find out where her brother has been taken.

The Black Phone reunites Derrickson with his Sinister star Ethan Hawke for what is an enjoyable and effective chiller from the mind of Joe Hill. (Keep an eye out for James Ransome who also makes an appearance from Sinister.)

The beauty of The Black Phone is that it doesn’t rely on gore or violence (although there is some) but mostly on the tension and expectation of what might be coming as The Grabber plays games with Finney, changing his demeanour (and his mask) with alarming regularity. The Devil mask that Hawke wears throughout the majority of the film is creepy enough as it is, but with interchangeable top and bottom, its expression changes from scene to scene and from friendly, to sad and to angry. It may not (yet) be as iconic as Jason or Michael’s masks, but it is definitely up there in terms of disturbing creepiness!

Hawke puts in a great performance despite his face being largely obscured for the majority of the film, presenting The Grabber as insane but dangerously smart bad guy to Finney’s young, bullied school boy. Playing the game “Naughty Boy” with Finney, Hawke’s role seems to be to sit, shirtless on a chair in the kitchen, waiting for Finney to try and escape. Hawkes body language under that mask, speaks volumes to the potential violence and consequences for Finney should things go wrong.

While Hawke is always a good watch, it is Finney and Gwen that are the stand outs of The Black Phone.

Thames is utterly convincing as Finney, the bullied (at school and home by an abusive father) victim of The Grabber. Playing many of his scenes alone, he carries them brilliantly, always convincingly and his change from helpless victim to fighter is rewarding. However, the revelation for me was Gwen. McGraw goes through her own traumatic journey in her hunt for her brother and she does it with real talent. She gets some of the best lines in the film, and the funniest with a mouth that would make a sailor blush.

And the film is funny in places, in real contrast to the rest of the film which is, unsurprisingly, pretty dark for the majority of its running time. The Black Phone isn’t a terrifying film; Sinister beats it on that front. But it is definitely creepy and the fear of kidnap that we should all hopefully have is easily enough to sustain the tension throughout the film. There are a number of jumpscare that are quite effective and a couple of them are completely unexpected – or at least they were for me! Telegraphed by a ridiculously loud blast on some violins/piano/iron pipes/church organs, whatever the hell it was, they certainly got my heart rate up for a few seconds!

The Black Phone is another winner for Derrickson and Blumhouse. Catch it in the cinemas if you can!

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