The Black Phone review: spooky and suspenseful

Black Phone, predecessor to the upcoming The Black Phone 2.
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Director Scott Derrickson teams up with Ethan Hawke again for The Black Phone: here’s our review of an intriguing horror film.

A whole ten years after working together on Sinister, director Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke team up once more. Except this time the tables have turned – Hawke gets to be the masked, child-snatching villain. He does it so well, in a role that has not too much screen time. That said, the entirety of The Black Phone thrives on suspense, atmosphere, and great performances from all involved, even if it’s pretty straightforward to see where it’s going.


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Set in the 1970s, Hawke plays the otherwise unnamed The Grabber, who abducts and murders teenage boys. Our protagonist, Finney (Mason Thames), winds up as his latest victim, trapped in a basement with little hope of escape. The basement he’s trapped in is sparse, with no decoration except for a disconnected phone on the wall. When it starts to ring, Finney finds that he can hear the voices of The Grabber’s past victims, and they’re dead set on preventing their fate from befalling him, too.

There are two types of horror story being told here – one of horrifying real life abduction, abuse, and murder, and a tale of the supernatural where the dead can communicate with the living. Both are incredibly tense; there are times when the ringing phone and The Grabber’s victims can be just as scary as the real, physical threat. However, while it feels like these two facets of the story are interwoven, they never entirely gel together and can feel a bit disconnected. In the midst of it all too there’s a coming of age tale here.

The supernatural elements are never explained or even theorised about. We simply have to accept that ghosts exist, no questions asked, and that some people mystically have the ability to hear them. This ability is part of what makes The Black Phone feel very Stephen King-esque (for fairly obvious reasons!). The 1970s period setting just heightens this, and there are some visual homages as well. At one point, Finney’s sister Gwen’s clothing (heavy-handedly) calls back to It, and a close up of a significant house number makes you recall a certain hotel room from The Shining.

As a Stephen King fan, the homage is enjoyable. Appreciating the short story the film’s based on is written by King’s son Joe Hill, the film for me did lean quite heavily on its references, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that chunks of the film felt ‘borrowed’ While the start of the film tries to break the mould, by the end it feels a bit formulaic. We know how this kind of story ends, and The Black Phone is no exception – though it is satisfying when it comes around.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t tense, or even outright scary in some places. There are few moments when it’s not breathtakingly suspenseful. You’ll be sat waiting for something to happen the entire runtime. If you’re a real horror nut, you may be disappointed that mostly it doesn’t pay off, but all in all the movie manages to be completely and utterly nerve-shredding. The rare jump scare that it does utilise comes out of the blue and is really effective, much to the film’s credit.

It’s also fuelled by great performances. Hawke’s face is at least partially covered most of the time, forcing him to use his voice to be expressive. It’s an understatement to say he succeeds in conveying the air of an absolute maniac. There’s some disturbing subtext behind the character, a hint that his motivations may be sexual, but this is never dug into and it feels like a thread that’s been perhaps pulled back from. Other than this, we know nothing about The Grabber – something which simultaneously heightens the terror surrounding him and hampers the depth of the character.

As such, the unexpected star of the film is Madeleine McGraw as Gwen. Not only is she an integral part of the plot, she’s the most personable and energetic of all the kids in the movie. The character has a potty mouth, and you can tell McGraw is having the time of her life yelling out these memorable lines. She also produces the majority of The Black Phone’ few laughs.

The Black Phone struggles to break any new ground in the genre and borrows a lot, but at the same time it’s an edge-of-your-seat kind of film that thrives on its tense atmosphere and great central cast. It’s not an original horror movie, but it’s definitely an effective one.

The Black Phone is released in UK cinemas on 22nd June.

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