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‘The Black Phone’ (review)

The Black Phone is an American horror film starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, and Ethan Hawke. The film is directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) and is based on a short story by Joe “Stephen King Jr.” Hill. While its dependence on jump scares to maintain conventional suspense is disheartening, The Black Phone is stylish and well produced with good child performances (for once) and strong characterizations.

Hill’s kids share the quality that the stars of Stranger Things did in that they really feel like children from their period and it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood horror film that is willing to get so dark in a story about children trying to navigate the world.

The film is built around the chemistry between Mason Thomas and Madeleine McGraw’s brother and sister.

Living in a small Colorado town with an alcoholic father in the late 70’s, Finney (Thomas) and Gwen (McGraw) are used to caring for themselves in the face of apathetic and absent adults. The town is caught in the grip of a serial child murderer called “the Grabber” (Hawke, who we’ll talk more about later) who drives a black van.

Both children are personally involved: Finney watches close friends and acquaintances alike begin to disappear while Gwen has visions about the case in psychic dreams– a gift she inherited from her mother whose fate is only hinted at.

The kids feel real– and that’s essential because this story depends on not just our caring about these kids once they’re placed in jeopardy without it feeling like pure exploitation or in poor taste.

Soon, Finney is captured by the Grabber and Gwen is trying to piece together her dreams to find out what’s going on. Gwen isn’t the only help Finney’s getting though. While captured and held in a cement basement, Finney is contacted by the souls of the children the Grabber has previously murdered, who want to see their killer caught so they can rest in peace. What follows is a highly enjoyable game of cat-and-mouse between the killer, the kids, the cops, and the ghosts.

The Black Phone has several qualities that I must commend: it has a wonderful quality of “magical realism” as to how it handles the issue of psychic dreams and calls from beyond the grave. It has a clear and haunting conception of the afterlife which stuck with me after the film. Apart from one reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that was a little cute for my tastes, all the dialogue feels superbly natural. The film also deftly avoids the “genius serial killer” trope that is so irritating in the American thriller ever since Thomas Harris’ novels began to be aped by lesser writers. He is a slave to his compulsions, and barely holding off suspicion and capture. This makes for a wonderful final two acts of the film.

I have one minor complaint about the film in particular, and of horror films of the last few years in general and as I have a column about cinema this is the perfect place to impart it on the long-suffering readership: how many horror films do not trust their audiences to feel the suspense of the moment; the predicament of the character and resort to a sound ramp and a carnival jump scare?

Once or twice it is fine, an element of the genre and form that will never entirely go away but this film becomes absolutely dependent upon them during the key scenes between Finnie and the ghosts that are the heart and soul (if you’ll forgive the pun) of the picture.

Filmmakers: trust your audience to invest in the characters and earn real scares without having to resort to carnival fun house tactics.

That aside, The Black Phone is a fine Hollywood horror film with slick production and good performances. Easy recommendation.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Screenplay by Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Based on “The Black Phone” by Joe Hill
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw,
Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke

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