Dir: Scott Derrickson. Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke. 15, 103 minutes
I wouldn’t blame you if you were a little sick of seeing kids on bicycles. You know the ones – packs of them, furiously pedalling down the street in order to halt whatever paranormal entity threatens their precious American suburbia. The Stranger Things via It via Ghostbusters: Afterlife pipeline of wistful nostalgia has been serving up countless Steven Spielbergian throwbacks for the past few years. And, from a distance, the new Blumhouse horror The Black Phone seems like more of the same. It is, after all, a feature-length adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story from 2004. Hill happens to be the son of Stephen King, the other Stev(ph)en at the helm of this single-minded pop culture takeover.
Here, the kids are indeed on bicycles. It’s 1978, with all its ringer shirts, casserole dishes and rotary phones. Baseball is still a hallowed pastime. And boys from all over the neighbourhood have been disappearing without a trace. Only put down the Christmas lights, Winona Ryder. The Black Phone, Scott Derrickson’s first directorial effort since 2016’s Doctor Strange, is a confident return to his sharp-edged horror roots that only indulges in nostalgia so that it can viciously tear it apart. As much as Netflix likes to push the narrative that Stranger Things is skipping down the road to darkness, it’s still ultimately an exercise in wish fulfilment – pinned to the simple desire to turn back the years and once again feel the thrill of an adventure without adult supervision.
The Black Phone, meanwhile, is brutal to its very bones. Derrickson’s vision of childhood is one of constant and inescapable terror. The playground is a warzone, where a good day for young Finney (Mason Thames) is one where he escapes without any bruised ribs. At home, his alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) wields a belt against him and sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). The missing posters around town bear faces that Finney dimly remembers. It’s said the boys were taken by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). If you even say his name, he’ll appear with a fistful of balloons, ready to steal you away. In the end, he does come for Finney – posing as a hapless children’s magician, before tossing the boy in the back of his van and locking him in a basement with nothing but an old mattress and a disconnected phone.
As with Derrickson’s previous collaboration with Hawke, 2012’s Sinister, the director proves he can deliver an effective jumpscare – slick, and not too telegraphed. But there’s a thematic weight here that elevates The Black Phone above any of his previous work in the genre, a dark reminder of how often moral panics and bogeymen are conjured up in order to turn a society’s eyes away from the real and inescapable violence happening in people’s own homes. Hawke, tellingly, rejects every temptation to slide into showboating villainy. The Grabber is quiet, more John Wayne Gacy than Pennywise the Clown. He hides behind a devil-horned mask (designed by the legendary Tom Savini, known for his work with George A Romero), that’s segmented so that he can show his eyes or his mouth, but never both at the same time.
His evil is condensed almost entirely into a single shot, as he sits silently in a chair at the top of the stairs, shirtless with his broad, muscled shoulders and a belt in his hand. He wants Finney to escape his prison. He’s waiting. There’s a lot contained within that image, especially in the way it circles back to the beatings delivered by Finney’s father. Thames and McGraw shoulder that emotional intensity with real courage, while the latter also gets to deliver a few funny, foul-mouthed retorts like “dumb f***ing fart knockers”. These are smart kids. And Derrickson, who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator C Robert Cargill, gradually starts to construct a fragile network of solidarity between them – not only linking brother and sister, but Finney and The Grabber’s previous victims. Not that there’s some cutesy team-up waiting at the story’s climax. The Black Phone commits to its tone until the very end. Keep the good times for other kids, on other bicycles.
‘The Black Phone’ is in cinemas now