Based on a short story by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, The Black Phone trades on every parent’s worst fear: their child being snatched off the street by a shadowy predator, never to be seen alive again. But its focus is not the older generation’s anguish (in fact, the main parent here – played by Jeremy Davies – is an abusive and remorseful alcoholic), rather the nightmare suffered by the young abductees, primarily 13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames).
A resident of North Denver in 1978, Finney is the latest in a string of kids imprisoned in a dingy basement by a serial abductor known as ‘The Grabber’ – portrayed by Ethan Hawke, who spends the majority of the movie hidden behind a series of creepy demon masks. It sounds like ultra-grim viewing, but director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (reuniting with Hawke for the first time since Sinister ten years ago) gives the film a propulsive escape-room feel, presenting the resilient Finnie with a puzzle to be solved: how to break free of this horrific predicament before The Grabber’s ‘Naughty Boy’ games finish him off.
Finney, you see, has help. Back home, his plucky and amusingly sweary younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is experiencing handy psychic dream-visions. Meanwhile, The Grabber’s previous victims (all teenage boys) call up Finney on a disconnected telephone, to provide clues and whisper advice from the grave.
Ethan Hawke leaves you in no doubt of his flair for villainy
So this is not a horror in the traditional sense; the supernatural elements are ultimately beneficial, though Derrickson can’t resist throwing a few cheesy jump-scares at the audience, even if Finney himself is weirdly unaware of the ghosts suddenly materialising beside him.
The narrative is unadventurously straightforward, and anyone looking for any neat twists or wrinkles will be disappointed; the spectral nature of Finney’s allies could have made for a neat final-act reveal. But the performances are uniformly strong, with McGraw stealing scenes and Hawke exercising his dark side so effectively that, after this and Moon Knight, he’ll leave you in no doubt of his flair for villainy.
The Black Phone is out worldwide Jun 24.