The Black Phone – Review

Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 43 minutes, Director – Scott Derrickson

After being kidnapped and trapped by ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) receives calls on a disconnected phone from past victims, trying to help him escape.

Co-writer (with C. Robert Cargill) and director Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone appears to have been largely sold using the figure of Ethan Hawke’s central antagonist The Grabber and his selection of devil-like masks. It therefore comes as some surprise, although not entirely a bad one, that his screen-time feels quite limited. He’s used as a looming reminder of the threat faced by 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) as he finds himself trapped in a soundproof basement after having been kidnapped by the until-now-faceless figure who has been terrorising the streets of his mid-70s neighbourhood. The film follows him trying to find ways to escape, helped by what appears to be previous victims of The Grabber on the other side of a disconnected phone in the basement.

From the very start, as we witness the tensions in Finney’s own home where he lives with his younger sister, Gwen (Madeline McGraw) – a young girl with a mouth that could put a drill sergeant to shame – and abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies), there’s an easily established slow pacing to the film. It draws out its themes and ideas in the build-up to Finney actually being abducted by the disguised figure in the black van. While some elements have a slight impact on the narrative, such as his being constantly bullied at school, there’s often not a completely investing nature to the film as a whole. While you’re able to sit there and watch the events unfold, and gradually become more engaged once the core plot kicks in and Finney’s escape attempts begin, the fear factor isn’t quite present.

It’s once we finally meet Hawke’s eerily soft-spoken criminal that an air of creepiness begins to enter the piece. When he’s on screen, his face largely covered up by masks meaning his eyes are conveying an effectively heavy amount, tension begins to waft in through the otherwise shut door leading to the potential staircase to freedom. An early claim of his to Finney lingers in the mind throughout whenever he appears: “I won’t ever make you do anything that you won’t… like”, the pause perhaps acting as one of the most effective pieces of suspense in the film. With the occasional reminder of Hawke and what Finney is potentially trying to prevent, detailed to him by the victims on the other side of the phone.

Yet, the true horror of the film comes in the more unexplained almost supernatural details. Not quite Gwen’s dreams where she can see details of previous victims kidnappings and where they might have been taken, but more in the presence of such figures when Finney talks to them. There are certainly a couple of effective jump scares placed here and there throughout the film. They pair up well with the more unexplained elements, which don’t really feel as if they need further expansion due to the creepiness provided from the relative unknown about them. As such moments play out a different side of the film is shown. While it certainly differs from what surrounds it, and indeed sticks out a bit, there’s no denying that some of the most effective, and engaging, content is held in these moments, although could be slightly expanded or used more so as not to feel as out of place, or from nowhere, as they occasionally do.

As things build up and get closer to the third act there’s enough within The Black Phone to gradually bring you on board and eventually involve you in the piece. It particularly occurs as the third act pans out and the tension and fear for what will happen to Finney is properly detailed. Even with Hawke simply sitting in a chair upstairs his posture and general nature – still with a mask on – raising the tension of the final stages, and allowing for any potential and actual interactions to have more effect – the speed of the final 15 minutes or so picks up from the rest of the film with a successful impact that helps to keep you in place and more engaged with the proceedings. While it might take a bit to become properly interested in the film, instead of simply just watching it unfold, once it does kick in things begin to grow and there is an occasional fear factor which works in its favour, not just thanks to Hawke’s performance and effective limited presence. It’s certainly an overall interesting film in the way that it goes about itself, it’s just that the actual content isn’t always as interesting and engaging, particularly in the build-up.

While it might take a bit of time to properly get going The Black Phone does pick up, thanks to a mixture of Ethan Hawke’s sparingly used performance and the more unexplained elements of horror. While not everything quite completely gels together there’s enough present to make for watchable and engaging enough viewing.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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