Written By Darren
Rating 3.5 out of 5
The Black Phone is destined to be the breakout horror film of the summer thanks to a trio of lead performances and a story that is certain to get under your skin.
Scott Derrickson made a name for himself in horror directing Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil, the former of which failed to scare me, but he has truly outdone himself with his return to the genre after directing Doctor Strange back in 2016. Adapting Joe Hill’s short story, the film tells the story of a young boy who is kidnapped and locked in the basement, awaiting his fate as his kidnapper begins to play games with him. But, a mysterious black phone in the basement connects him to the ghosts of the young boys who were kidnapped before and brutally murdered, giving him guidance on how to escape his captor.
From the second the kidnapper appears on screen, known only as The Grabber, there is a sense of dread that takes over the film. And that is mainly due to Ethan Hawke’s terrifying performance. His portrayal of The Grabber will have your skin crawling, as he transitions from quiet, calm mannered, to a full blown psychopath within a single line of dialogue. It’s such a nuanced performance, that even the scenes where he has only a few lines of dialogue, you are absolutely terrified by his presence. Very few actors could pull off the role, because it’s a fine line between terror and sympathetic to create such an emotionally complex villain that most would lean into one requirement to hard while forgetting the other, but Hawke continues to prove himself an exception actor by nailing both aspects.
The film hinges on the performance of Mason Thames as Finney, who is nothing short of incredible. In his first lead performance, Thames has a natural presence that takes you on this terrifying journey with his character, inviting the audience into the film and making you feel every emotion he undergoes while in that basement. It is a career making performance for Thames, that is certain to have the offers flooding in for him going forward.
Though, it is Madeleine McGraw who steals the film as Finney’s sister Gwen. Within seconds of appearing in the film, she has a fire and spunk to her that is absolutely infectious that takes over every scene. It’s reminiscent of a young Carrie Fisher with the way she runs circles around the male characters in the film, delivering so many laugh out loud moments of the film as she drops profanity like no other. At the same time, she brings such a warmth and compassion to the role as she navigates her visions, trying to save her brother. Her performance is of a calibre of someone far beyond her age, and I cannot wait to see what the rest of her career has in store for her. Rounding out the supporting cast is Jeremy Davis as Finney and Gwen’s alcoholic father, creating this complex character grappling with competing emotions, and James Ransome, a frequent collaborator with Derrickson who provides some wonderful comedic relief.
The story is good, thanks to Hill’s basis which captures a complex, emotional horror reminiscent of the infamous works of his father Stephen King. It’s a great basis which underpins the film. There are some excellent jump scares in the film that will have you jumping out of your seat for sure, all building to that terrifying and wild final act. However, Derrickson’s direction does not keep the tension high throughout the film. In between jump scares in the first two acts, there is a sense of calm that lulls the audience into a sense of safety, which took away from the horror experience. I’m not saying that Finney should have been tortured, but the ghosts were sanitzed after their first terrifying experience and the Grabber was absent for a good portion of the film. You needed some feeling of The Grabber constantly watching Finney, whether it be him banging from upstairs or more frequent visits, to create this uneasy feeling and idea in your mind that Finney may not survive the film. That feeling is present in the final act, which is sure to be a long remembered final act for a horror film, but the rest of the film needed to match that tone.
Helping build the atmosphere of the film is the 70s setting, with the soundtrack choices and the pop culture references, playing into the nostalgia that has made projects like Stranger Things a worldwide phenomenon. Guaranteed to give you chills thanks to Ethan Hawke’s terrifying performance, but also to wow you with the exceptional performances of Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, The Black Phone is destined to be the horror hit of the summer if you are brave enough to watch it.