Writer/Director Scott Derrickson returns to horror for the first time since 2004’s Deliver Us From Evil with this fun and feisty serial killer thriller, woven with finely crafted frights and punchy violence. Despite its 1978 North Denver setting, The Black Phone feels less of a trope loaded homage to ’70s/’80s horror, unlike other nostalgia loaded genre flicks of late, but more a film from the age it is set. It’s a bracing, character focused throwback with compelling arcs, spry humour and nifty scares, and the fantastically recreated era serving as nothing more than a pleasant backdrop to the unfurling terror.

Young teen Finney (Mason Thames) is processing his late mother’s death while receiving regular attacks from both school bullies and an alcoholic father. Meanwhile, Finney’s hot-headed younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is having psychic visions of a local serial killer known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) who has murdered five kids in the neighbourhood. After Finney is abducted by the killer, he is contacted by ghosts of the Grabber’s victims via a broken phone in his basement. Both the spirits and Gwen then try to use their psychic powers to help Finney escape.

The Black Phone is adorned with an ’80s/’90s Stephen King air (it was based on a short by King’s son Joe Hill), which embellishes the well-flowing tale and characters who, despite their stereotypical traits, evolve as the story progresses. Finney is hardened by his traumatic past and paternal/peer abuse yet remains passive. Gwen is hearty (like an older version of Phoebe in The Monster Squad) and stands up for her brother, but the script by Derrickson and regular co-writer C. Robert Cargill, doesn’t shy from showing the consequences of her bravery.

Troubled dad (Jeremy Davies) at times displays vulnerability while often seeming scarier than The Grabber himself, with Hawke’s performance of the killer revealing a twisted, multi-mask wearing, black balloon handling crank, blending Phoenix’s Joker with Depp’s Willy Wonka, instead of the kind of rage fired psycho like Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface: a film that’s directly referenced by both Finney and indirectly via the unnerving sound design, which brilliantly incorporates Pink Floyd’s On The Run.

Many components contribute to The Black Phone resounding as a fun, engrossing, supernatural thriller that uses scares and violence sparingly but with tact. Derrickson skilfully increases tension towards a pulse racing finale but it’s the characters/arcs that are The Black Phone’s highpoints. Derrickson demonstrates how much they, and genre films from the era, have both evolved, and remained the same over the years. Above all it’s is sprightly, frightening, absorbing fun with solid jump scares, a Stephen King vibe and a terse finale that should leave general viewers flustered and genre hounds grinning gleefully.

The Black Phone
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Daniel Goodwin
Daniel Goodwin is a prevalent film writer for multiple websites including HeyUGuys, Scream Horror Magazine, Little White Lies, i-D and Dazed. After studying Film, Media and Cultural Studies at university and Creative Writing at the London School of Journalism, Daniel went on to work in TV production for Hat Trick Productions, So Television and The London Studios. He has also worked at the Home Office, in the private office of Hilary Benn MP and the Coroner's and Burials Department, as well as on the Movies on Pay TV market investigation for the Competition Commission.
the-black-phone-reviewTense and unflinching, this is a visceral experience made all the more heart-pounding by the terrifying central performance from Ethan Hawke. Derrickson & Cargill's script makes the most of Joe Hill's horror, and the film will delight and disturb in equal measure.