Scott Derrickson returns to his horror roots with The Black Phone, a new, original horror-thriller starring Ethan Hawke.
Scott Derrickson, if you’re reading this, I’ve missed your horror films. You probably aren’t and I don’t want to make it weird, but Sinister remains one of the best studio horror films of the last decade. And after The Black Phone, Derrickson’s latest original film, Sinister still reigns supreme, but The Black Phone is a delightful return to horror for Derrickson.
At the very centre of The Black Phone is Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). Their father has descended into alcoholism after the death of the siblings’ mother and Finney is mercilessly bullied at school. A child killer is also terrorising the community and Finney is soon taken by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke).
He chucks Finney in a basement with only a mattress on the floor and a disconnected phone on the wall. Finney soon begins receiving eerie phone calls from The Grabber’s previous victims, while Gwen, experiencing visions in her dreams, tries to find her brother.
The concept of The Black Phone is original and intriguing enough. The calls from the dead children are creepy and well realised on Derrickson’s part. These scenes are also undercut by a sense of tragedy as the children struggle to remember their names and identities, as if they’re slowly but surely fading away from the world.
Sadly, the film needs more Ethan Hawke, like most films to be honest. The acclaimed actor is clearly having the time of his life playing The Grabber, but the film doesn’t really feature a whole lot of him. Always wearing his ever-changing and undoubtedly creepy mask, which breaks into different parts, The Grabber is a mysterious entity.
Perhaps the biggest misstep here is to vaguely imply that The Grabber’s motivations could be sexual. He states that he just wants to watch Finney and he seems to just creep along the walls and stare a lot. It’s plenty terrifying, but The Grabber would be terrifying whether or not he was a sexual predator or paedophile, and the uncertainty around it is frustrating.
The Black Phone also isn’t very scary. It’s effective and Derrickson crafts impressive scares, but they’re too far apart and overall, The Black Phone plays out much more like a thriller, just with some added ghosts. The tension stems mostly from whether or not Finney gets out rather than the horrors he faces within the basement, while substantial time is also granted for Gwen’s search for Finney.
The child actors are all phenomenal, especially Madeleine McGraw as Gwen. She’s feisty and sassy, very easy to root for. Every time the camera cuts away from Gwen, the electricity that she brings, just disappears. This isn’t to say Mason Thames isn’t good as Finney; he’s great, but his character lacks nuance and spirit, being more of a blank slate than Gwen.
Jeremy Davies makes for a convincing alcoholic father, even if his performance is a little surface-level and leans a bit too much on cliches. James Ransone, also seen in Sinister, pops up for a short, but memorable appearance and brings much needed humour into the film.
And then there’s Hawke. He’s eerily creepy and effective, but the character lacks depth. Not that you need a lot of depth in a child killer, but you need something that hooks you as a viewer. An audience rarely needs to know the killer’s motive, but Hawke’s character is so blank and broadly written that rather than amplifying the mystery, it takes away from the terror. Give us breadcrumbs, some hints to who he is as a person; humanity is always more terrifying than the supernatural. The more human your villain is, the scarier he will be.
The Black Phone isn’t quite the home run I was hoping for, but it’s a very well made and effective thriller. It’s a genuine delight to see Scott Derrickson returning to the genre and while it may not be his best work, it’s a fine addition to the filmmaker’s filmography.
The Black Phone is in cinemas June 22