de facto film reviews 3 stars

In the year 2012, director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, a former film critic-turned-screenwriter, unfurled to the world, Sinister, a low-budget horror film starring Ethan Hawke. The film grossed over $80 million worldwide and has gone on to be regarded as one of the most terrifying and formally distinctive genre films of the 2010’s. It’s a film whose deeply haunting shocks still linger with this particular writer today. After the pairing of Derrickson and Cargill moved on to Doctor Strange, but subsequently departed from the now Sam Raimi-helmed sequel, the storytelling duo, alongside star Ethan Hawke, reunite for an adaptation of a short story from author Joe Hill, son of Stephen King. While The Black Phone doesn’t aim for similar poop-your-pants level of horror in Sinister, it is instead a more methodical, gripping exercise in suspense.

Adolescence in the 1970’s is brutal. Every day is a struggle to survive; surviving the local bullies, surviving the wraith of your alcohol-guzzling father, and not to mention a child kidnapper by the name of The Grabber currently roams the streets. Finney (Mason Thames) is a typical 13 year-old living in North Denver in 1978. Lonely, with very few friends, he and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are each other’s best friends, seeking solace from their boozing dad. Rumors are ablaze around town of a mysterious kidnapper known only as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke, in a rare villainous performance) lurking around town, kidnapping and murdering children. Finney is kidnapped by The Grabber and is trapped in his empty basement with only a mattress, toilet and an old disconnected black rotary phone. At least, a thought-to-be disconnected phone, as the phone mysteriously begins to ring, with the spirits of The Grabber’s past victims on the other end.

Set apart from many films that have recreated the period with more optimistic eyes, The Black Phone is bleak and horrific, even before Hawke’s Grabber shows up. Derrickson shows real grit in depicting the harsh realities of the era. There’s a genuine sense of melancholy that seeps through Derrickson’s images. The story is viewed through the perspective of Mason Thames’ Finney and there’s little sugar-coating in the depiction of the setting. An early scene of a belt whipping by Finney’s father — played by the ever-reliable Jeremy Davies — is perhaps the most harrowing and dramatically affecting moment in the film. Derrickson takes his time before involving Hawke’s Grabber, spending much of the opening act establishing the atmosphere of the time period. Backed by effective work from DP Brett Jutkiewicz, the late 70’s setting feels tangible and lived-in.

The cast, made up of largely young actors, feels authentic to the time; you genuinely believe these kids have never seen an iPhone. Mason Thames is a strong lead, made all the more impressive by just how much the film relies on him. Madeleine MacGraw has an electric, fiery presence to her, while delivering some complex work for any actor, let alone one that is just 13 years old. The script gives real heart to these characters, making you deeply invested in them. The on-screen bond between Thames and MacGraw is endearing, even occasionally touching. As the film’s big antagonist, Ethan Hawke is undeniably creepy. The character’s intentions and backstory are intentionally vague,  leaving Hawke to fill in the gaps, with highly effective results. Sporting a series of interchangeable masks designed by legendary genre icon/effects guru Tom Savini, Hawke relies on his Lon Chaney-like physicality and emotive eyes to settle under your skin.

Derrickson’s sense of style fits within the films setting, without ever feeling like a pastiche of 70’s horror. The filmmaker is less concerned with replicating the style of his influences, but in replicating the tone and emotional honesty. There is, of course, plenty of DNA of Stephen King, but also De Palma’s Carrie and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. The authenticity that Derrickson brings to the screen makes the story and its supernatural elements even more gripping and involving. This isn’t an outright horror film in the sense that Sinister was, but instead a gripping and spooky thriller. Derrickson implements many of his visual and storytelling tricks used in Sinister, as well as The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The premise itself feels like an exercise for Derrickson to work up some real masterful bits of tension.

When Finney communicates with the spirits of the deceased children, Derrickson utilizes some unique blocking that not only heightens the dramatic intensity, but shows Derrickson’s strengths as an incentive storyteller. Finney’s sister, Gwen, has psychic abilities, allowing her visions/dreams that show her walking within the frame, shot with an 8mm camera. It’s these great little details that separates The Black Phone, and much of Derrickson’s work for that matter, from a typical genre outing.

Given the screenwriting team of Cargill and Derrickson, there is a bit of a letdown given the lack of depth from some elements of the story. After the first act, the film becomes more tight and constrained, which is great for the ever-growing sense of dread that Derrickson implements, but skims over some details that would otherwise help flesh out the story.

The Black Phone is a tense and impeccably constructed thriller with great performances. Ethan Hawke makes for a memorable villain and director Scott Derrickson replicates the late 1970’s with an incompressible lens. If you’re expecting the unrelenting horrors of Sinister, you’re sure to be disappointed, but will be rewarded with a suspenseful and wonderfully tense slice of genre storytelling.