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Crafted from the short novel by Joe Hill (Horns), The Black Phone has been given the feature length treatment from a screenplay by Scott Derrickson and C. Thomas Cargill. The novel itself is only 45 pages long, but the writing duo manage to expand on this to produce a descent film that embellishes the characters on display with great success/.

Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) also takes on directing duries and with this weighty script, manages to accentuate some cracking performances from his lead cast, two of whom are child actors. It is an area often remarked as problematic when working with young actors, primarily in capturing natural performances, but Derrickson shows no such obstacles in the final product.

Mason Thames deserves high praise for his portrayal of 13 year old Finney; a boy who falls into the shadows of American suburbia, often bullied reducing his frame further still. Finney isn’t completely invisible though, and there are those who are aware of his kind-hearted nature. Chief among them is his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw, another fine performance) who also has a supernatural and psychic gift. She is even more than a one note mystique though as Gwen is a strong, defiant, physical and yet comical character, providing Finney with the crutch he so needs to survive. The question is whether he can survive when Gwen is not physically there to support him. Their relationship and this paranormal link between the siblings  is integral to the movie, championing their individual strengths and providing the heart of the film, which beats steady and strong throughout hte narrative.

Once Derrickson spends quality time in allowing the audience to identify and connect with these characters, including a overbearing, drunk father (Jeremy Davies) who is struggling with his own demons, the rug is pulled from under our feet, as swiftly as Mason is swept into the back of a black van by child serial killer nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) disguised as a part time clown. There are indicators here that Finney isn’t going to go quietly however, as he manages to cut The Grabber’s arm with a toy rocket.

Hawke is magnificently haunting as the antagonist, pulting out all the stops in making The Grabber a menacing figure. This is further supported by the manner in which he hides for the majority of the movie behind a sinister mask, designed by the great Tom Savini. Underneath his guise, he also harbours a fractured personality; a combination of sombre, playful and destructiive. This range needs to be in the hands of a master for the threat to have any nearing on Finney, and Hawke plays the fearful tune with heartfelt integrity.

When Finney awakens, he finds himself in  a soundproofed basement, with just a mattress, a toilet, and the titular black phone. The master stroke to the narrative is through the twist in the tale. This is not a straight forward drama, but one firmly entrenched in a spiritual nature, as Finney soon learns that he is not alone in the basement, but is accompanied by the presence of The Grabber’s child victims. One by one, they make themselves known to Finney, providing him with the ammunition he may need to overpower his kidnapper, and maybe, just maybe win his freedom along the way.

This journey is filled with tension and hope, a balance that Derrickson flicks the audience between, sometimes with some much-need humour to juxtapose the weight of the situation. It is this dalliance that is Derrickson’s gift, keeping his audience hooked until the end. 

The Prognosis:

Scott Derrickson once again proves to be a master of the macabre in his latest outing.
In weaving together a spiritual tale about finding your inner strength in order to overcome aversity, with some incredible performances from its lead cast, he has produced one of the greatest films of the year.

  • Saul Muerte