By Brendan Graham
Summer has officially arrived, and with it comes the Hollywood blockbuster. Movie lovers have many opportunities to beat the heat, with many beloved franchises returning to the big screen or characters getting their own spin-offs. We’ve had space rangers, fighter pilots, and dinosaurs taking over the screens, but we’ve had a bit of a dry spell when it comes to horror. That changes this weekend with the release of Universal’s THE BLACK PHONE, the newest spooky offering from writer/director Scott Derrickson and his partner in crime writer Robert Cargill, who previously offered horror fans such classics as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. This chilling adaption of the short story by Joe Hill from his collection called 20th Century Ghost is a much-needed genre treat that delivers with strong performances and some genuine frights. In the film, we are introduced to 13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), who is having a tough time at school and at home. During the day, he’s targeted by a group of mean kids who just want to torment him. At night, Finney and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are avoiding the wrath of their drunk and abusive father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) who is still quite distraught over the loss of their mother. To make matters worse, children are going missing in their town, and the rumblings of a serial killer nicknamed ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) have put everyone in a perpetual state of unease. Shortly after one of Finney’s friends goes missing, Finney is kidnapped by this mysterious man with black balloons and is stuffed inside the back of his van. Finney wakes up in the severely unfurnished basement - only a mattress, a toilet, and a broken black phone hanging on the wall. Finney’s days are numbered, but luckily he’s not alone in this fight, as the previous victims of ‘The Grabber’ want to make sure Finney doesn’t meet the same gruesome fate as them by communicating through that broken phone on the wall.
THE BLACK PHONE is a character-driven piece and the film allows its young protagonists an opportunity to shine. Mason Thames brings exceptional sweetness to his role as Finney, giving the audience a character they can identify with as well as cheer for in the upcoming conflict. Madeleine McGraw is a young star in the making with her portrayal of Gwen, a fiery girl who has no problem fighting back against bullies and verbally insulting adults, including Jesus during a prayer session. Ethan Hawke is incredibly menacing and frightening as ‘The Grabber’. Wearing a variety of masks created by Tom Savini and his crew, Hawke often is only able to emote with his body language, his voice, and his eyes, and I can safely tell you that he absolutely nails this role. He’s genuinely creepy, from his perverse mannerisms to the theatrical way he uses his hands when talking to Finney, we never feel safe around him and that’s the exact feeling we needed as an audience. The children playing the previous victims are effective as well. The film’s use of violence is well balanced, and when it chooses to unleash it (even when it’s not ‘The Grabber’ causing it) it can get quite brutal and uncomfortable, including a difficult-to-watch sequence of abuse with a belt. While we don’t get to see what happens to the dead boys directly, the brief glimpses of them as well as the descriptions of what happened are enough to chill you to the bone. The scares are effective, but some viewers may want more of them and may find the pacing to be uneven when jumping between the basement and the investigation to find Finney. Where the film may lack in the scare department towards the end, it sure as hell delivers some unbearable tension, that just oozes with discomfort, which is pretty delightful if you ask me. Fans who have also read the short story by Joe Hill may not be pleased with some of the changes made to the source material, like the change in the demeanor of the father character. There’s also quite a bit of humor and heart to break up some of the tension, including James Ransone’s character introduced later in the film, but that extra bit of humor may make or break some enjoyment of the film for some audiences.
THE BLACK PHONE is a call worth answering. With terrific performances, incredible suspense, and some unsettling moments, this Joe Hill adaption is entertaining, exciting, and just a damn good time. While it may not be the scariest movie out there, it will leave audiences on the edge of their seats, cheering and hollering at the screen and that’s what a great summer film should do.
THE BLACK PHONE is only in theaters starting June 24th.