Review | ‘The Black Phone’ presents a surprising, complex horror

The Black Phone | Dir: Scott Derrickson | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

Scott Derrickson takes us back to the 1970s, to a Denver suburb full of ‘missing’ posters and grieving parents, as quite a lot of children have been abducted from the streets. People are trying to get on with life, but The Grabber (Ethan Hawke in brilliantly scary masks) is circling the town in his black van.

We get to know 13 year-old Finney (Mason Thames) who is being bullied at school and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who has inherited her mother’s psychic abilities. We see how they live in fear of their abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) and cringe at the amount of violence that was tolerated at that time.

Derrickson (whose previous films include The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister and Marvel’s Doctor Strange) produced, directed and co-wrote the film. Based on a short story by Joe Hill, who is Stephen King’s son, the details of the film come from Derrickson’s own traumatic childhood in North Denver, where violence existed inside and outside the home.

When Finney is taken by The Grabber, he is put in a soundproof basement with a disconnected black phone on the wall that keeps ringing. In a jarring twist, Finney is able to communicate with previous victims of the sadistic serial killer. It is a lifeline for Finney to overcome the fear he has had to live with for his entire childhood and draw in his resilience to try to outsmart his captor.

The Black Phone is more complex than the usual horror film, ticking so many boxes and staying with you long after the viewing. Mixing a social drama (the bullying and domestic violence) with a serial killer on the loose, then topping it up with a scary dash of the supernatural was a winning combination. Setting the drama in the seedy seventies gives it some distance from current times and leaves room for hope that such horrors are in the past.

Lezly Herbert

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