The team that brought us Sinister is back with Blumhouse and Joe Hill, to bring what has suddenly become one of the most anticipated horror films of the year. At its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill were in attendance along with Derrickson’s two sons, Atticus and Dashiell. Before The black phone has rolled, the short film by Derrickson “Shadow Prowler”– which he shot during the lockdown – was screened for the public. Beaming with pride, Derrickson praised his children and helped set the tone from the start: Tonight is all about family.
The black phone is based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill. Hill, the son of Stephen King, tends to write a lot about the family and this story is no exception. Hill’s graphic novel Lock & Key explore a magical world that reveals secrets in an ancestral house; NOS4A2 builds a vampiric dream world for children from mostly broken homes. And in The black phone, a closely related brother and sister use the abuse they endure in their lives and the gifts they inherit to help set a trap that so far no one has been able to escape.
In the Colorado suburb of 1978, life is tough for Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his firecracker sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). School bullies are waiting for them both after school, and their alcoholic and misguided father (Jeremy Davies) is waiting for them after dark. Resilient and “touched” by the powers passed down from her mother, Gwen takes the brunt of the abuse, left to cry and cry while Finney watches. To make matters worse, there’s a mysterious man in a van (Ethan Hawke, as “The Grabber”) who kidnaps kids in the neighborhood, and one of Finney’s friends just got caught. The Grabber’s victims are never seen again, but once Finney finds himself locked in the killer’s lair with a disconnected phone on the wall, he discovers they can still be heard. The phone somehow continues to ring, connecting the victims to the only remaining soul who could possibly survive with their help.
The first act of The black phone, which establishes the daily chore of Shaw’s family life, falls a bit flat, dangerously close to the melodrama you might find in a darker Lifetime movie. It’s not the brutality of the child abuse that’s particularly hard to watch, it’s that its execution feels slightly off-beat, with scenes stretched in a way that forces the actors, who are doing their best, to act out. do too much. The beats and punches at the start are important, however, as they provide a blueprint for Finney’s survival once he encounters a much more sinister version of his father in Hawke’s Masked Killer.
It was undeniably easier to get away with being a serial killer in the late ’70s, but you’d think it would still be incredibly suspicious to ride in a black van filled to the roof with black balloons from jet. Looks like he’s going to a gothic kid’s birthday party, Hawke’s goofy wizarding act seems to work just enough for him to drugs and drag the kids behind his back and speed up. Invisible for most of the film, Hawke’s performance is gleefully gruesome and insane as The Grabber plays the game he created, a game no child has yet been able to win. Whether it’s a stylistic choice or Hawke’s reluctance to be seen as a kidnapper, The Grabber’s face is almost always obscured or hidden behind a devil-horned Kabuki mask. (Hawke also keeps his distance from other actors, so the mask sometimes seems like a COVID precaution.)
Read also: The black phone The poster is scary AF
In Hill’s original 2004 short, The Grabber was a clown. But after the success of THIS, Hill suggested the look should be updated. Derrickson came up with the idea of creating a three-piece mask through which Hawke’s features, especially his expressive eyes, could still be seen in various changes and combinations. By bringing in Tom Savini (yes, our Tom Savini) to help with the design, the decision is especially effective because you never know exactly what Hawke will look like every time he appears. Derrickson excels at that kind of design touch, adding instant iconography to a killer who could have appeared as a John Wayne Gacy clone.
Landing somewhere between a sadomasochist and a court jester, Hawke’s performance is fearless. But it’s Mason Thames’ nuanced turn as Finney that keeps The black phone anchored when the most supernatural elements come calling. Thames’s tenacity is contagious and makes Finney easy to take root, even when it sometimes seems a little too simple for him to just run away. The ingenuity of the lit bulb on Thames’ face gives us flashes of hope, especially when all those dead children are there to remind us that time is running out.
However, there is never a real sense of dread, especially since The Grabber does not in fact all seem unstoppable. The character is never as scary as those creepy kids who make up a dead line. When his former victims call, they echo haunting warnings of the tortured end they’ve endured, and that should make Hawke’s character more threatening… but it doesn’t. Relying too much on quick jerks and jumping fears, some moments of The black phone feel like the more PG-13 moments of The sixth sense. Leaving a potentially terrible spell to the imagination may work on the page, but not always on the screen.
Setting The black phone in 1970s Colorado, where Derrickson grew up, seems to be one way of suggesting that today’s kids wouldn’t survive an encounter with this kind of evil. Then again, the children who died at the hands of The Grabber didn’t quite have the courage of Finney and Gwen. Maybe the suburbs are the real villain of the movie: there is something chilling about thinking heinous crimes are being committed right under your nose, without knowing if your neighbor or someone close to you is in fact a maniac, hidden away. the sight of all in the heart of the suburbs.
Seeing The black phone in a theater with some of America’s best moviegoers was a special experience, an experience that sparked these ideas in me as its events unfolded. But honestly, while I would be eager to re-read this adaptation of Hill’s short story if it existed in novel form, I’m less likely to revisit what we have in this movie.
The black phone had its world premiere on Saturday at Fantastic Fest 2021. Visit the festival website for more information.
The black phone is arguably Joe Hill’s best film adaptation yet, but admittedly, there’s not much competition yet. There are still plenty of unique flourishes and powerful performances to entertain the horror masses, however, when it hits theaters.