The Black Phone

HORROR; 1hr 43min

STARRING: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies

Pitched black: Thames

Fun-wise, 1978 North Denver isn’t a whole lot to write home about for 13-year-old Finney Blake (Thames). Finney lives with his abusive, pie-eyed widower father, Terrence (Davies), and mettlesome, psychic sister, Gwen (McGraw), in a predictably unhappy household whose drabness, like that of those around it, reeks of opportunities lost. But with a serial killer of kids (Hawke, in his first filmic segue to the pitch-black side as The Grabber) cruising its featureless streets, this is no standard-issue, stultifying suburb.


Bringing Joe Hill’s 2004 short story to the screen, director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) has partnered with harbingers of horror Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Get Out…), to whom the labels subtle and indirect are unlikely ever to be attached. Running true to that can-do form, after a brief sketching of his life, Finney is summarily grabbed, ahem, and incarcerated in a dingy basement whose only notable features are a mattress, a toilet and a black rotary-dial wall phone.


Although disconnected, the phone rings repeatedly with The Grabber’s victims on the other end. Dialling from beyond the grave, the miserable spirits are nobly doing what they can to save Finney from their appalling fate. Meanwhile, the resident maniac swings in and out, sporting a demonic horned mask whose rictus grin hardly spells reassurance, despite his laughable insistence that Finney is in no danger.


Bloodied spooks and ghoul masks aside, Finney’s misery skews more slow burn than fright fest. With Hawke a cipher behind his camouflage, Thames is under the gun for the duration, dialling up determination with a gladiator’s desperate resolve. Even in the final, frightful showdown, his resistance is grace under lunatic pressure.