New horror movie The Black Phone reunites Sinister‘s Ethan Hawke with director Scott Derrickson, Halloween Kills‘ Troy Rudeseal with producer Jason Blum, and Lost‘s Jeremy Davies with the act of frowning at phones.
The latest offering from Blumhouse is better than a film titled The Black Phone – in which Ethan Hawke plays a character called The Grabber who snatches kids by driving around in a windowless van, wearing a scary mask and holding black balloons – has any business being. Set in 1978, it sees a Denver suburb stalked by the balloon-bearing child catcher, who treats the local supply of kids on bikes like the buffet at an evil clown convention.
These allusions to It are deliberate (the short story is by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill) but avoid the ham-fisted nostalgia of the recent reboot or its symbiotic sister series Stranger Things. A couple of ’70s rock songs and genre movie namechecks are enough to establish the time period without hitting us over the head with references, while Brett Jutkiewicz’s cinematography perfectly captures the era and setting with its suburban greys and metallic skies.
The smart script and child actors do an impressive job of balancing the requisite foul-mouthed dialogue with a sensitivity missing from the It crowd. There is a believable relationship between the central siblings (Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw) and with their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies), whose abusive behaviour is explained and shaded by simple backstory and a nuanced performance. They feel like a real family – at least in the eyes of somebody raised by Stephen King.
Given the young protagonist’s intelligence it seems unlikely that he would be taken in by The Grabber, who he knows has been kidnapping his friends, to say nothing of the black van/white makeup combo. But taken in he is, waking up in a basement furnished only with an old mattress and a disconnected telephone. And yet it rings, leading to a series of spectral phone calls that Derrickson (Doctor Strange) fails to make particularly cinematic but successfully drive the plot forward within the confines of a single room.
Those parameters are also set by defining the titular phone as the film’s link to the supernatural – alongside the psychic dreams of the prisoner’s sister, a fantastic character who really ought to have been the lead. Apart from the aforementioned visions, she is cursed with strength from the outset and therefore denied the arc of her weedy brother. As for The Grabber, the interesting choice to make him pathetic comes at the expense of being scary, which we still need in the interest of tension.
Nevertheless, The Black Phone is one of the better entries in a kids-on-bikes revival cycle that can often seem two tyred. Its lack of gore, jump scares or extraneous information lends it a low-fi focus, with an emotional core grounding its plot contrivances. Like the eponymous telephone, it shouldn’t work but it does.