The Black Phone is a tale of abuse and support, adapted from the short story of the same name by Joe Hill (The son of Stephen King) and one of the better recent horror/thriller movies I’ve got to review. It’s in part a reunion of the cast and creators of the movie Sinister, with director Scott Derrickson, writer C. Robert Cargill and actors Ethan Hawke and James Ransone. It has a similar feel for tension and paranoia, over outright scares. However, The Black Phone doesn’t quite reach the heights of their previous work, despite strong performances and a mostly good screenplay.
The Black Phone is now playing in theatres.
Story – A Supernatural Escape Room
The Black Phone adapts the short story successfully, staying true to the source material. The story is centred in Denver, in an area terrorised by a serial killer who targets children, named ‘The Grabber’. The plot follows the young teenager Finney Blake, a smart but shy lad, and his sister, Gwen, a fledgling clairvoyant with heaps of attitude.
The first act functions to establish our characters, focussing on Finney’s trouble with bullies and violence, as well as the siblings dysfunctional homelife with their abusive alcoholic father. There’s a Stephen King vibe to the setting that works well and there’s some great emotional weight to these scenes.
Eventually Finney is taken by the Grabber. He is locked in a vile basement by the disturbing villain but finds aid through a strange black phone. Through this he can communicate with the spirits of the previous victims. With help from the other side he begins to work on his escape. Finney must avoid setting off the volatile Grabber, who seeks an excuse to abuse the child. The movie isn’t gratuitous in its violence, using implication and threat to punch home it’s fear.
The second thread follows Gwen, who has visions in her dreams of the killers’ actions. This aspect is saved by a strong performance from actress and charming dialogue. However, it ultimately doesn’t feel like it amounts to much despite showcasing the strong bond between the siblings.
The struggle the movie has is stretching the short story to feature length. Plot elements feel unresolved, and in some cases, unnecessary. For example, James Ransone’s character doesn’t serve much of a purpose to the film and could be cut despite a fun performance. These problems would be more significant however, if it wasn’t for the pacing and dialogue.
Character and Performances – Grabbing your Attention
In the wake of IT, Stranger Things and now The Black Phone it seems that the fear of bad child actors is largely unwarranted.
Mason Thames plays Finney and delivers a great performance, perhaps a little hampered by a lack of scenes for him to really deliver in. He disappears into the role and shines when interacting with the sister Gwen, played by Madeleine McGraw. They have good chemistry together and portray the tight sibling bond formed through adversity extremely well. His arc of learning to stand up for himself is believable and executed well.
Madeleine as well has some phenomenal scenes, performing moments that would be tough even for seasoned actors. She serves as both an emotional centre and comedic relief for the movie. Some of her scenes are better than others, but she brings the hammer down when she needs to.
The father played by Jeremy Davies was a bit hit and miss at times, but that may be more a case of a lack of scenes. He tends to fade into the background, which may be the point given the absence of supportive and caring adult figures.
Lastly, we have Ethan Hawke’s performance as the Grabber. It may be a change from his usual character type, but he is a great villain. He has his face hidden throughout the movie, with a devil mask that has a changeable mouthpiece (designed by horror legend Tom Savini) that showcases his changing moods. It’s a tough role to nail when you can’t see his face, but through his voice, that flits between aggressive and low, and almost childlike and high pitched is fantastic at displaying his unhinged psyche. Even more impressive is his acting through his eyes, the only part you can consistently see. Hopefully this preludes more villainous roles for the actor.
Cinematography and Sound – Retro Style and Great Lighting
The production is another stand out area of review for The Black Phone. The lighting is used to its best effect, with the use of colour and shadow that works well with the vibrant retro costume design. They combine the lighting with the set design especially well in the killer’s basement. The darkness is used to great effect with the spirits of the dead children blending in and disappearing. There are some really great transitions, such as a shift from a kidnapping to the opening of an Emergency show. It’s not the most creatively shot movie, but the use of the camera is effective.
The sound design is also great. The soundtrack mixes 70s tunes of the outside world, with a deep and unsettling reverberating sounds of the basement. The use of static background noises for the deceased children communicating through the phone is a spark of genius that fits well with their blood covered ghosts being right there, but also distant through the noise of the phone. The use of sound helps to make the rather bland basement have more personality to it.
Editing and Pacing – Nicely Paced but Missing Parts
The editing and pacing of The Black Phone supports the movie through it’s weaker elements. The movie is at risk of feeling padded given the amount added to the source material. However the editing keeps the movie going at a quick pace, which at times may even be too quick, as we jump between the siblings in quick succession. Nevertheless, the quick pace of The Black Phone keeps you engaged throughout the movie it, it’s worth noting for review that it may be a bit much for some viewers.
There is also a sense that some parts of the movie hit the cutting room floor that shouldn’t have. Not everything requires an explanation, but something feels missing. It’s a tough call when adapting a short story, and its beyond the scope of this review to say what should stay and go in The Black Phone. Nevertheless the movie may have been improved by either being slightly longer or trimmed down.