Having acrimoniously parted ways with the Doctor Strange franchise, director Scott Derrickson goes back to his horror roots with The Black Phone, a cleverly pitched movie based on a short story by Joe Hill (the pen name of Stephen King’s son).
Set in the late 70s, Mason Thames plays Finney, a young man who becomes the latest victim of The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a masked serial killer who has been targeting kids in a small Colorado town.
Locked in a basement, Finney notices that an unplugged phone in the room begins to ring, and on the other end of the line are the voices of previous victims, who help him plot his escape.
An interesting premise builds into a compelling first act, with a story that focuses on small bursts of horror rather than a ghost house full of jump scares.
Those jump-out-of-your-seat moments do come, but not quite as regularly as horror fans might hope.
The plot also wanders as time goes on, a symptom of many short stories that are stretched to feature length. Thames uses the little resources he has to show Finney summoning the courage to save his life.
Even as the supernatural elements pull the movie in different directions, he is always more than a hostage pleading for mercy. Derrickson reunites with Hawke for the first time since Sinister, the film that revamped the star’s career, and as The Grabber he’s suitably terrifying.
Combining a physical performance with a mask that opens to reveal certain parts of his face, it’s yet more evidence of the actor’s versatility. The Black Phone might have seemed more revolutionary a few years ago, before complex horror came back into vogue. Nevertheless, it’s a polished, spooky story told by a filmmaker back in his comfort zone.