The team who brought us Sinister, director Scott Derrickson and his writing partner C. Robert Cargill, have reunited for another small scale, effective horror with a solid Stephen King vibe. Maybe this should come as no surprise given their inspiration is a short story by Joe Hill, King’s son and now a successful writer of his own merit. Where their real success lies, though, is in the embellishments they’ve made to Hill’s original story, amplifying the tension while also providing a rich vein of humour.
The name on top of the posters is Ethan Hawke, but the stars of the film are the two child actors at the story’s centre, Mason Thames as Finney and Madeleine McGraw as his sister Gwen. Hill’s original story centres around Finney, growing up in late 70s Denver in a time when, if you didn’t stand up to the school bullies, you’d hope there’s someone in your corner. Looming beyond the constant threat of schoolyard violence is an even more menacing threat, as the missing posters for boys of Finney’s age are mounting and it’s inevitable that Finney will be up there soon.
While the local police engage in another ineffectual manhunt based on sketchy descriptions, Finney attempts to assess his options from a darkened basement with only a high, heavily barred window as the only glimmer of escape. That’s until a phone on the wall starts ringing, despite having been disconnected for years, and when Finney answers, he finds himself connected to The Grabber’s previous victims…
Derrickson agreed to team up with Cargill again after that well-received partnership on 2012’s Sinister, a move facilitated by the director leaving the Doctor Strange sequel over often-quoted creative differences. While his original Strange film is one of the more original and effective origin movies in the MCU, between this and Sinister, it seems Derrickson might be most valuable working on smaller canvasses with original characters. While many modern films play on a nostalgia for the Spielbergian childhood of the 80s, Derrickson and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz use anamorphic lenses and Super 8 footage to create a rougher, grimier feel.
That authentic 70s vibe extends to the rest of the production, including characteristically fluffy hair, conversations about Happy Days and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with copies of Starlog magazine prominently displayed in a grocery store. Derrickson also worked with stunt coordinator Mark Riccardi to give the childhood scraps a sense of force that he recalled from his own childhood, with both bullies and protectors pulling no punches at all.
All of this serves to deliver a faithful adaptation of Hill’s original story, which focused mainly on the battle of wits in the basement between Finney and Hawke’s Grabber. Originally the troubled protagonist of Sinister, this time he reunites with the team to serve up a deliciously creepy antagonist. Horror legend Tom Savini provides the character, a failed children’s magician, with Lon Chaney-esque masks, but Hawke projects his performance past them and offers a surprising, edgy intent that serves to build a significant atmosphere of tension.
But it’s the additions to Hill’s story that also help The Black Phone make an effective transition from short story to full length feature. Firstly, there Finney’s sister Gwen, a Tasmanian devil of whirling fury with a potty mouth that would please Eric Cartman, who sticks up for her brother and encounters dreams that could provide clues to unlocking various disappearances. The filmmakers succeed in adding in a second supernatural element that doesn’t upset the story’s balance, that also provide some of the film’s genuine laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a rare skill to be able to deliver such moments without dissipating the slow-build tension, but this horror thrives on mood and ambiance more than its occasional jump scares, as Derrickson balances the tonal shifts wonderfully without ever being too heavy-handed. The only slightly less successful, yet occasionally powerful, element is a subplot involving the siblings’ father (Jeremy Davies), an alcoholic barely functioning as a parent after the death of their mother.
While Sinister served to be one of the more memorable horror movies of the last decade, The Black Phone, encompassed around the trio of Derrickson, Cargill and Hawke, has delivered an equally effective horror with more humour, two wonderful young leads and a nightmarish villain of the sort that normally ends up in their own franchise. Enjoy the chills and the laughs of this original before those diminishing returns of the sequels kick in.