MOVIE REVIEW – In Scott Derrickson’s latest creepy serial killer horror film set in the late 1970s, Ethan Hawke plays the deranged “Grabber”, who kidnaps children from a rough neighbourhood, and their fate is pretty sinister.
The makers of Black Phone have got their work cut out for them. Almost a decade ago, the team of C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson made their horror debut with Sinister. The film’s eerie visuals struck fear in our hearts, and one film aesthetic study called it “the scariest film of all time”. Five years (almost to the day) before Cargill and Derrickson scared us with this horror film, Joe Hill published his novel ‘The Black Telephone’. Now, the adaptation of this very novel has been released in cinemas, once again thanks to the collaboration between Derrickson and Cargill. The result is yet another professional psychological horror film that is at once terrifying, depressing and highly atmospheric.
The first third of the film follows the journey of Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) through pre-teen suburban life in the 1970s. The two sisters have had a tough life: they lost their mother, were bullied and beaten by school bullies, and their drunk and aggressive father (Jeremy Davies). Of course, this is nothing compared to the fact that there is also a kidnapper in their town who kidnaps the boys one after the other. Before long, Finney finds himself trapped in the basement of the fearsome mask-wearing Grabber (Ethan Hawke), and Gwen races against time to find her brother before it’s too late.
This is the depressing seventies, not a nostalgia party
This story is personal for Cargill and Derrickson, highlighted by the relatability of the children’s story and the oppressive 1970s environment, which play a much bigger role than some might think. While for many people, hearing about the USA of the 1970s evokes neon-lit nostalgia, this film presents a distinctly depressing world, not only through the story of the alcoholic, drug-addicted, child-beating father, the aggression at school, the seedy environment and of course the psychotic serial killer himself but also through cinematic elements such as the use of pastel colours in the imagery and the depiction of a depressing small American town.
The authentic portrayal of the era and the honest portrayal of the youth of the time make it clear that there is a connection between the filmmakers and their story. This pinpoint authenticity makes the world they create so realistic and genuinely eerie.
The two child actors take the credit for the adults
Since much of The Black Phone takes place in the aforementioned dingy basement, the film has to rely on the talent of its actors to keep us more riveted than other horror films, such as the less realistic but equally terrifying IT. Fortunately, the film’s child leads, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw rose to the challenge. During an interview, Derrickson revealed that production was held back for McGraw when scheduling conflicts arose. The studio wanted to recast her, but Derrickson refused. It’s easy to understand why the director was so adamant, and it was absolutely the right move.
Much praise is due to McGraw’s excellent performance, whose character suffers from her father’s aggression and nightmares, which may stem from her faith, but also help her track down her missing children and her own brother. McGraw is not only a stunningly professional child actor but also an essential character in The Black Telephone, and the film owes much to her acting skills. A fallible little girl struggling with her own demons and terrified of her father, she becomes a real, capable, characterful hero in her brother’s life. McGraw brings professionalism to this dual character rarely seen in child actors and adults.
The victim and the killer
At the same time, we must not forget Thames, whose character is also undergoing a massive character development and is portrayed with commendable professionalism by another young actor. Thames not only goes through physical hardships, but even before his abduction, he is under constant stress as he has to protect his sister from her father or himself from aggressive schoolmates while falling in love with a schoolgirl at school. Then he finds himself in a filthy cellar, where he must fight for his life… Thames also portrays these emotions in a very authentic way, which is also a tribute to the director’s professional work.
Finally, we must mention Ethan Hawke, who has already proved his professionalism as a villain in Moon Knight https://thegeek.games/2022/05/04/moon-knight-disney-reaching-for-the-moon/. Knowing his film career, we always knew what the actor was capable of, but The Black Telephone presented him with a new challenge, which Hawke once again met perfectly. Still, here the challenge is even greater because the masks often require him to portray his character’s horrific repressed emotions and sickly aberrations through his eyes alone, relying on the painted expressions of the mask he is wearing. And he did it in a way that was often eerily ‘friendly’ – only to turn into a real psychopath at the most unexpected moment.
This is a phone worth to be picked up
After Sinister, the challenge was immense, but C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson managed to exceed extremely high expectations in almost every way. The writer-director duo entirely focuses on personal traumas while portraying the intricacies of 1970s childhood and the genuine monsters of our world with outstanding professionalism, while the performances of child actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw take the already gripping story to new heights.