‘Stranger Danger’ is the generation-spanning phrase children are all too familiar with, ingrained into their minds by worrisome adults. Never go anywhere with a stranger, never take a ride from a stranger, never accept gifts from a stranger - and so on.
Director Scott Derrickson, whose work ranges from terrifying scarefest Sinister to superhero outing Doctor Strange, essentially takes this sentiment and turns it up to an eleven with THE BLACK PHONE. The result is an unabashed old-school horror that also feels refreshing because of its simplicity.
It’s 1978 in New Denver and children are mysteriously disappearing, supposedly taken by a person only known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). He poses as a magician, complete with white face paint, but instead of bunny rabbits and hats, black balloons fill the back of his van. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is constantly bullied at school and never has the courage to stand up for himself, unlike his fiery little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who always has his back. Their father is an abusive alcoholic, who whips his daughter at any mention of her potential psychic abilities. It’s only a matter of time before Finney is abducted by the sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement. On the wall is a black phone with a disconnected line, which strangely starts ringing. When Finney answers, he hears the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, who are also Finney’s best chance at getting out alive.
THE BLACK PHONE is the latest to join shows and films like Stranger Things in paying homage to the period in which it is set and the popular culture of that time (it’s interesting to note the film is based on a short story by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, and the It parallels are certainly evident). Not particularly elevated or metaphorical, the movie draws upon the time-honoured elements of traditional horror from the 70s and 80s - a small town, kids, ghosts, a psychotic killer and good old-fashioned scares.
Derrickson absolutely nails his nostalgic 70s setting, thanks to authentic production design, costuming (one word: flares), story elements (kidnappers, child psychics) and a solid amount of needle drops. While the film falls more into the thriller category, and may not disturb in the same way Sinister did, the director knows how to fashion a solid fright. A lot of this is thanks to Ethan Hawke’s unhinged performance as The Grabber - a mysterious figure who is unnerving in both appearance and presence, whether it’s his Joker-smile-inspired mask or unpredictable nature. Derrickson has fun with the supernatural elements and manages to throw in some effective jump scares that don’t feel cheap.
While Hawke is the big bad looming over the film, it’s the child performers that steal the show. Mason Thames plays young Finney with maturity and sensitivity, creating earnest vulnerability and garnering the audience’s emotional investment in his survival. Madeleine McGraw as Gwen is a firecracker of a presence on screen. She is the heart of the film, along with her relationship with Finney.
While the film gives audiences plenty to chew on, one can’t help but feel left wanting more, especially when it comes to Hawke’s Grabber. Sure, he’s a scary guy with a few screws loose, but the story never quite delves into why he does what he does. Some form of backstory or motive would have been a nice touch here. When the Grabber’s brother Max (James Ransone) is introduced, it seems like the perfect opportunity to flesh out and give context to the antagonist, but instead, Max feels out of place and doesn’t add any new ground to the story.
Nevertheless, THE BLACK PHONE is a thrilling ride that manages to inject new life into an arguably tired genre. This is thanks to Scott’s suspenseful direction, confident child performances, Hawke’s presence and an emotionally compelling story.
You can read Glenn's review of The Black Phone here.