Scott Derrickson’s latest film, The Black Phone is a pure petrifying frightfest that lives in the hearts and minds of 70’s and 80’s latchkey kids to this day. A well-made and well-represented period piece set in the 70’s that comes with a very real Richard Linklater Dazed and Confused approach to its method.
This entire era was filled with a very palpable fear that was passed from parents to their children. If you recall the kidnapping of Adam Walsh and the fallout of fear that came after, then you know exactly the sort of picture that Derrickson builds. It’s filled with that uneasy fear soaked atmosphere constantly. I have to say, the film would have been good with its 70’s set world. The kids, Mason Thames and Madeline Mcgraw, do masterful work before the horror kicks in. The believable broken family that they live in is almost too well done.
There is also a very real approach to the use of violence in the film that is entirely true to its time. If you grew up in the 70’s and 80’s in a small town. Bully’s and brutal fistfights were just as normal as asking for butter on your toast. Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill both intimately understand the world. Showing, warts, bruises, cuts and all.
As you can see, The Black Phone is a good film even before the horror arrives. But when it does, it becomes an instant horror classic that I would put above Cargill and Derrickson’s Sinister. And, I loved that movie to death.
The Black Phone follows brother and sister Finney and his sister as they navigate their lives with a drunk father and small-town bullies. Right from the get-go of the film, you are made aware of the small town’s creeping threat known as The Grabber. A kidnapper going around snatching up kids. It isn’t long before Finney himself ends up in the clutches of the truly disturbed Grabber (Ethan Hawke).
Hawke is not in his usual territory with this film. It isn’t every day you see Hawke play the bad guy… but hopefully, this film changes that. Because the dude adds a menace to the role that is a challenging balance of the Hawke we love and the new Tom Savini designed mask wearing maniac. Hawke’s role requires finesse which he delivers in huge helpings. There is a carefully constructed sensibility he creates that keeps making you believe he has a reason for the kidnapping or that he is doing it for the greater good. He doesn’t come out swinging with the menace and that in itself is the terror.
Savini’s mask is an incredible work that entirely matches Hawke’s approach to his character and its ever-changing moods. Savini achieved this by creating a mask that is made up of an interchangeable lower and upper half. These mask segments are used to illustrate the mood of Hawke’s character. Hawke completely disappears into his role, barely showing his face outside of the mask. The fact that Hawke’s character hides behind the masterful mask makes the entire time he is on screen even more sinister and creepy.
The Black Phone was a story written by Joe Hill in which a clown kidnaps a young boy in a small town. Derrickson beats the hell out of that with much-needed additions and changes to the short story. This is easily the best adaptation of Hill’s work and a reworking that somehow makes the terror even more in your face.
Once Finney is captured, the film plays out in The Grabber’s basement. When Finney discovers a black phone on the wall, that rings despite being disconnected he ends up with a possible lifeline and his best chance at getting out of the kidnapper’s basement.
Hawke and Thames chemistry is incredible. Hawke’s menace and Thames’ take-no-shit attitude, is an incredible dynamic that I can’t remember seeing before in any films in recent memory. Total testament to how great the two actors are.
The world that Derrickson creates feels very real and very lived-in part of the 70’s. The small town and the little details of that town and the kids’ lives are all expertly achieved.
It’s tough to steal the spotlight from Hawke and Thames, but the young sister played by the amazing and larger-than-life Mcgraw manages to outshine them. Mcgraw’s constantly, charming, tough as nails, take-no-shit, and totally awesome in every scene that she is in.
Derrickson and Cargill have created a horror classic. It is filled with a very real and palpable two-fisted approach to terror that is entirely almost too familiar. It lives in parental and childhood’s deepest most core fears. The film could have existed without the horror and been great all on its own but the addition of the menacing magician with his black van and demonic mask makes for an incredible horror experience. The Black Phone constantly pushes the terror and big scares but constantly in a fuckin’ blast of a direction. The Black Phone is an instant horror classic that you need in your eyeballs immediately.