Set in the 1970s (how else were they going to work a landline into the story), this supernatural horror film follows the fight for survival of young Finney (Mason Thames). Kidnapped by serial child-murderer ‘The Grabber’ (a supremely creepy Ethan Hawke), Finney is locked in the killer’s basement, with only a phone full of ghosts for company. Can the Grabber’s previous victims guide Finney to freedom before he too disappears for good?
Sinister and Doctor Strange writer-director team Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill return with this adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story. Eschewing the glossy ‘80s nostalgia of Stranger Things, Derrickson and Cargill present a grim, miserable ‘70s suburbia of abusive parents and unchecked kiddy-grabbers. Hill has worked hard as an author to avoid stepping on his famous father’s coattails, but it’s hard to ignore the parallels – children with supernatural abilities, a violently abusive, alcoholic dad, and a serial killer who preys solely on little boys. Even harder to ignore are the kidnapper’s balloons and the presence of James Ransone (It Chapter 2’s grown-up Eddie Kaspbrak), bolstering the unintentional King vibes. Clearly, this was something Derrickson and Cargill were conscious of – changing a line from the Grabber describing himself as “a part time clown” (as it was in Hill’s story), to “magician” instead.
If only most Stephen King adaptations were as good as The Black Phone is to Joe Hill, though. In addition to its compelling monster (Hawke gets less to do than one might have expected, but makes every second count), there’s Jeremy Davies as the alcoholic dad, and Ransone, channelling Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, for some reason.
Up against Hawke and Davies, the child actor-ing is jarring at first, but quickly settles into its rhythm. Thames and Madeleine McGraw are particularly impressive as the brother and sister, tapping into an emotional throughline that could easily have been missed. While Thames gets to face off against a positively demonic Ethan Hawke (hidden behind a series of Willem Dafoe Green Goblin masks), McGraw gets the best lines (delivered with fierce comic timing), holding her own against incompetent cops and Jeremy Davies’ mumbling alcoholic dad.
Ghosts on the phone or no, there are only so many variations upon the kidnapper/kidnappee dynamic, and there will be few surprises in store for the jaded horror fan. Wearing thin after the first couple of failed escape attempts, the film’s endgame is an obvious one, and neither the red herrings nor the jump scares are particularly surprising.
Still, these quibbles are forgotten by the finale, in which each of its intricately dangled threads are pulled taut. For all its atmosphere and scares, The Black Phone is a sweet and tender coming-of-age story, cunningly disguised as something far more sinister.The Black Phone is in cinemas now.