North Denver, 1978; school is hell for Finney Shaw, targeted by a gang of bullies for whom taunts and cruel behaviour are less satisfying than physical violence, nor does home offer safety, he and his sister Gwen at the mercy of their alcoholic father, Finney unable to protect her from the violent mood swings directed at them since the suicide of their mother. Neither is their respite in the twilight between the two, several local children having recently vanished, supposedly taken by the man the press have named “the Grabber.”
The toughest kid in the class, Finney’s friend Robin is missing, as is Bruce whom he knew from the ball park, then comes Finney’s time, intercepted walking home from school and waking up in a concrete basement with a steel door and single window high out of reach, his captor waiting for an excuse to beat him, his only company the disconnected telephone on the wall which still rings, calls only Finney can hear from the murdered children who preceded him.
Director Scott Derrickson returning to horror after his marvellous diversion to introduce Doctor Strange, The Black Phone also reunites him with his frequent collaborator C Robert Cargill who shares credit on the script and two of his stars from Sinister, Ethan Hawke as “the Grabber,” masked throughout, brooding and demonic as he waits for any deviation from Finney which will justify punishment, and James Ransone in an ebullient supporting role as Max, overly eager to share his theories with the police.
Derrickson and Brett Jutkiewicz recreating the visual feel of seventies cinema without feeling like pastiche, Hawke is the spider lurking at the centre of the web, a concealed presence which hangs over his victims even when he is out of the room, The Black Phone instead carried by Mason Thomas as Finney, swallowing his fear and openly defiant of his captor, and the superb Madeleine McGraw as Gwen, a child who has no patience for the delicate sensibilities of ineffectual adults who say one thing and do another and get nothing done.
Her brother the only person in her life she can trust, his absence is a void which drives Gwen’s dreams of black balloons which link with evidence not widely known outside the stalled police investigation, convincing her that she can find a lead if she can overcome the obstacle of her father, fearful that Gwen is following down the same path as the wife whose death wounded him and determined to beat the belief out of her.
Adapted from the short story of the same name from Joe Hill’s anthology 20th Century Ghosts, The Black Phone is at times predictable, each disembodied voice offering an insight into the prison or the jailer which will advance Finney’s attempts to escape, but as a retro-suburban horror it is well constructed and performed, the jump scares sparse but effective and far from a wrong number despite the familiarity of its trappings.
The Black Phone is currently on general release