The new Blumhouse Productions horror movie from Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange” and “Sinister”), “The Black Phone” is based on a short story by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) about a young boy captured by “The Grabber,” the notorious child-killer who has been roaming his neighborhood. While in captivity, Finney (Mason Thames) begins receiving calls from the killer’s previous victims on a disconnected black phone.
The film takes place in the 1970s and it tends to feel like it was made during that time. Its a low-budget, simple movie that takes its time developing and strengthening its characters before getting to the meat of the story.
But “The Black Phone” is a well-made movie. It is brilliantly acted by both main child actors, as well as Ethan Hawke, who absolutely steals the show as “The Grabber.”
There is a very clever use of the film’s low-budget limitations, managing to make a movie that mostly takes place in a basement into one that is exhilarating, creepy and genuinely tense.
The film is also incredibly well-lit and well-shot. The way Derrickson lights “The Grabber” in darkness is wonderfully done, and there were certain times he looked like Michael Myers from the original “Halloween.”
And I can’t possibly forget “The Grabber’s” masks. Created by none other than Tom Savini, they obviously looked amazing when created by someone with a track record of handling the special effects makeup for classic films such as “Friday the 13th,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” Each mask is different and creepy in its own way. They give “The Grabber” this extra dimension that adds to his villainous character.
Where the movie does not work is the supernatural elements at play combined with child-abuse elements. While there is nothing wrong with having these factors in a movie (especially horror), the film feels like it tries to juggle way too many things at once. Its tension mainly came from the simple scenes of “The Grabber” talking with Finney, who tries clever ways to get out of his captivity.
The supernatural elements cease to exist purely to give the main character ideas (that he already figures out on his own). The child-abuse elements give an interesting subtext, but it is never fully developed or presented to be something concrete and interesting. I get what Derrickson seemed to be going for, but it never really works and feels unnecessary in what should be such a simple movie.
The film works more than it doesn’t, though. It remained special for me when I saw it, considering it was the only R-Rated movie out at the time it was released. It was certainly fun to see a well-presented horror movie that was so different and tended to be pretty hard-nosed and edgy.
Also, since it is not part of a franchise, it was a pleasure to see a film where you could go in not having to remember multiple movies or TV shows that came before it.
“The Black Phone” isn’t perfect, but it has plenty of good scares, solid cinematography and wonderful performances to keep you intrigued throughout.