‘The Black Phone’—Supernatural Horror Has Little Behind The Mask: Review

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The Black Phone: The Grabber decides what to do with Finney

When kids start to go missing in a sleepy Colorado suburb, lanky outsider Finney (Mason Thames) finds himself trapped in a basement by a masked man (Ethan Hawke) with nothing but a disconnected phone for company. Soon, however, the phone starts to ring, and The Grabber’s previous victims have their own wisdom to impart in Scott Derrickson’s by-the-numbers supernatural horror.

★★✰✰✰

Fear, as Christian Bale’s Batman may have said, is a powerful tool. When done right the horror genre reveals something profound, a primeval truth about what it means to be human. And, sometimes, a man in a spooky mask goes raargh.

The man in question this time is Ethan Hawke’s ‘The Grabber’: a top-hatted fellow in a black van snatching kids in 1978 Colorado. His victim is the 13-year-old Finney, a shy, put-upon baseball pitcher with an alcoholic disciplinarian for a father and a plucky, unambiguously psychic sister. The black phone of the title refers to Finney’s one conveniently located companion in his predicament, through which he receives a series of messages from The Grabber’s previous victims to help him escape.

In the same way that Godzilla vs Kong triggers a dose of serotonin when ‘big monkey punch big lizard,’ there’s a modicum of comfort to be had in knowing that at no point is The Black Phone at risk of deviating from this premise. Most of the actors do a fine job of heightening the material they’re dealt; Jeremy Davies is cartoonishly villainous as the Shaw kids’ dad, while James Ransone gives a brief but entertaining turn as a coked-up conspiracy nut. The child stars, too, are universally excellent, as Mason Thames commands the screen with a remarkable intensity, and Madeleine McGraw is instantly likeable as his rebellious (and sweary) sister, Gwen.    

Ethan Hawke, meanwhile, is about as scary as one would expect a man in a spooky mask to be, but perhaps the biggest mystery of The Black Phone is what drew him to the character at all. Sure, he does a fine job lurking around street corners, and his delivery of the entirety of the Classic Serial Killer’s Phrasebook is perfectly sinister, but it is rare for the masked murderer on a horror movie poster to be easily the least compelling (or scary) character in the film. And though The Grabber’s by-the-numbers characterisation may be broadly intentional, it’s still a shame to see Hawke denied the opportunity to truly flex his villainous wings. Instead, the film’s insistence on engaging the antagonist in anachronistically mundane conversations with his victims neuters the sense of mystery surrounding him to such an extent that it’s difficult to see him as anything other than just another guy in a mask.

If the cut-and-paste villain is anything to go by, then the film seems to be aiming for a knowing homage to Stephen King horror fare, which would work if it didn’t liberally borrow from the man himself. A kidnapper with a penchant for balloons. The late-seventies setting. A pair of psychic siblings. At one point a kid even cycles out in a rainstorm wearing a yellow raincoat. After a while these start to feel less like knowing winks and more like being smashed round the head with an omnibus.

It’s a shame because where the film heightens some of these tropes rather than simply reproducing them is where it is by far the most entertaining. Finney’s tough-kid friend roundhouse kicking a bully in the face, or Gwen giving Jesus an expletive-ridden piece of her mind for not finding her brother feel like fun additions to the genre rather than a re-hashing of its greatest hits. And while Scott Derrickson clearly directs the action with practiced coherence, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that this should have been made by a first-time filmmaker with a quarter of the budget.  

Maybe this is unfair because what Derrickson has made, and perhaps always intended to make, is a perfect sleepover film. A moderately scary horror flick with a famous actor and a few funny bits? Give it a couple of years and it’ll be flying off the streaming-shelves. As a gateway drug to 15-rated horror, The Black Phone does its job admirably. Anyone looking for anything more, however, would be better off hanging up.

The Verdict

Despite strong child performances and some welcome flashes of self-awareness, The Black Phone’s lack of originality proves grating in this moderately entertaining supernatural horror.

Words by James Harvey

The Black Phone is in cinemas June 24


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