One of the secrets behind Stephen King’s success (aside from him being a really good writer) was that the early adaptations of his work had such visionaries as Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick and Tobe Hooper steering them into the cultural lexicon with style to spare. Fast forward to the present and while big Steve’s spawn, Joe Hill, has inherited his old man’s talent for spinning a spooky yarn or two, he’s not had that knockout adaption to make him a household name.
Oh sure, Alexandre Aja’s version of Horns was… ok, and Neflix will get three seasons of Hill’s graphic novel, Locke And Key, but he hasn’t yet had that cinematic take to put him over the top… until now. Enter Scott Derrickson, director of Sinister and the first Doctor Strange who has given us The Black Phone, a cracking version of Hill’s short story of the same name.
It’s 1978 and a small town in Denver, Colorado is living under a cloud cast by the murderous actions of a serial killer dubbed the Grabber who has abducted numerous young boys in the area and condemned them to uncertain fates. In this environment lives Finney, a shy 13 year old with a mean pitching arm and a precocious sister in the form of Gwen and as they both speculate on the nature of the killer as he claims more victims, they also have to avoid the usually bullying and the abusive parenting of their grieving, drunkard, widower father.
Things take an even more sinister turn when Finney’s classmate and protector, Robin, becomes the Grabber’s next victim and soon after that, Finney himself is claimed by the strange figure who travels around town in a black van, wears and ever changing mask and completes his menacing ensemble with a top hat and obsidian coloured balloons. Finney awakes in a concrete basement furnished only with a mattress, a toilet, a single window and an unconnected black phone that hangs on the wall. The Grabber, at first, seems fairly reasonable (y’know, if you ignore the kidnapping and the creepy white mask he never seems to be without), but Finney is under no illusions that his life is in mortal danger and he only has limited time left. And then the phone rings…
It seems somehow that the phone is a conduit to the other side and the Grabber’s previous victims are lining up to offer tips, life hacks and vital information from the other side in order to keep him alive long enough to mount a daring escape. Meanwhile Gwen is having a touch of the supernaturals herself as she’s saddled with the same prophetic dreams that caused her dead mother to kill herself but she tries to decipher the garbled details being fed to her, Finney ever so gradually runs out of time. Can these two siblings figure out this mystery from both ends before Finney joins his predecessors in a shallow grave?
Put in the simplest terms imaginable, The Black Phone is damn good story, simply told as it strips away the flashy visuals and drawn out chase scenes other movies of its ilk would usually try to deliver a refreshingly straight forward tale full of creeps and crawls. Derrickson has turned out this kind of lean frightener before in 2012’s Sinister which contained a similar focused approach to telling a straightforward tale. Clinging to Hill’s original story fairly closely, the filmmakers are free to explore the time period and utilize other storytelling methods to flesh out aspects of the plot that don’t need to a straightforward explanation. What do I mean by that? Well, the best example is Ethan Hawke’s Grabber, a serial killer whom the film gives out virtually no details about, but who remains utterly creepy and fascinating due to his telling quirks, i.e. his noticeably curious choice of hear gear. The choice of mask he wears changes depending on his mood, the more garish the grin, the kinder he is; but woe betide you when he switches it out for a pouting frown, or – worse yet – when he detaches parts of the mask entirely to reveal sections of his real face. Hawke – obviously now in the playing-a-villain section of his career after his eerily calm cult leader from Moon Knight – is magnificent, changing his moods along with his face coverings and adding a hint of the playful nature of Pennywise the Clown into proceedings as his demeanor sickenly lurches this way and that like a deranged swing. However, as instantly memorable as the Grabber is, it helps that we give a shit about his victims beforehand and thankfully Mason Thames’ introverted Finney and Madeleine McGraw’s willful Gwen are more than up to the task, giving jaw dropping performances that provide the bedrock the movie needs to let Hawke fly free.
Matching the incredibly strong performances is the tone that Derrickson effortlessly manages to hold that’s admirably disciplined in a time where horror/thrillers tend to let their concepts run away from them. The temptation is there to let Hawke run riot all over the movie but the director keeps him off screen until he’s absolutely necessary, denying us a motive, an origin and even a face in order to preserve the power of his appearance. Also measured to perfection is the supernatural aspect of the story which, if used incorrectly could have butted against the serial killer stuff like a temperamental bull, but thanks to a steady hand – not to mention a fistful of perfectly timed jump scares – it all blends seamlessly together to feel like it’s all genuinely part of the same universe as a masked killer and a little girl who has grainy dreams pointing her to her imprisoned sibling.
The final thing that’s weaved in seamlessly is the 1978 setting which goes beyond simply dressing people up in the fashions of the time while still having them spitting out modern day colloquialism, as The Black Phone feels more uncomfortably genuine than most, right down to the occasional homophobic slur and our hero’s complicated relationship with their abusive father. Yes, some of it makes some of the characters complicated, but it also makes them feel starkly real and painfully human.
Some may lament that The Black Phone’s deliberate pace and cherry picked scares aren’t more relentless, but Derrickson’s dedication to the tone means we not only get a dread-laden, serial killer/ghost flick refreshingly free of the on the nose nature of so-called “elevated horror”, we get a flick that’s as ultimately rewarding as it is creepy that features the most memorable horror villain seen on screen since the untethered insanity of Malignant.
When The Black Phone rings, be sure to answer.