The Black Phone is one horror call you’re going to want to pick up
One of the more remarkable things about THE BLACK PHONE is its aesthetic. It looks and feels authentically late-1970s, so much so that you could believe it was genuinely made back then and only recently rediscovered. The most remarkable thing, however, is that source material author Joe Hill, screenwriter C Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson have combined to form an unholy trinity so powerful that not even producer Jason Blum’s homogenising presence can supersize this dirty little tale into one of his horror movie happy meals.
In late 1978, a series of child abductions rocks an otherwise sleepy Denver suburb, perpetrated by “The Grabber”, a sinister masked man who drives a black van. When a boy that Finney (Mason Thames) knew is kidnapped, his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) has a dream about his abduction, giving her knowledge which attracts the attention of the local police. But when Finney himself is taken, Gwen must try to use her gift to help find him before it’s too late. Meanwhile, held captive by The Grabber, Finney starts receiving help from a very unexpected source.
Although it’s not above the odd jump scare here and there, THE BLACK PHONE isn’t interested in pummelling your eyeballs with disposable frights, instead it plants it feet firmly in the mundanely beige reality of the late seventies and lets the characters and the situational horror breathe.
The beating black heart of the story comes from Ethan Hawke’s chilling portrayal of The Grabber, a mercurial and mysterious figure whose true nature never seems quite clear. There are hints here and there of some kind of multiple personality disorder at play – indeed his macabre masks vary throughout the film, rejecting current predilections for branding in horror – but never anything conclusive and its that refusal to provide the oh-so-prevalent complete explanation for everything and everyone involved that gives THE BLACK PHONE its rich and satisfying power to chill.
As good as Ethan Hawke is – and he’s brilliant – he’s matched at every turn by the young actors who play The Grabber’s latest victim and his sister. Both Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw effortlessly lay to rest any linger fears you may be harbouring about a horror movie that leans so heavily on children, delivering performances full of conviction and authenticity despite the dark and fantastical events surrounding them. Like The Grabber’s nature, Gwen’s psychic gift is implied to have come from her late mother but that backstory retains its power by virtue of being largely unexplored despite its clear impact on the present.
THE BLACK PHONE is a wonderfully atmospheric horror movie, tense, thrilling and immensely satisfying in its conclusion. Its triumph is that it’s whole and complete by the end with no need of coda or post-credit stings. Its tragedy is that it’s vanishingly unlikely that Jason Blum will leave it that way, undesecrated by sequels and spin-offs.