Horror genre powerhouse Blumhouse’s most recent release, THE BLACK PHONE, delivers strong performances, emotional weight, and heavy suspense—qualities that have been recently lacking in the production company’s pictures.
In a recent string of films and television series set in retro ages of yore, one might consider nostalgia-era horror as the hottest new sub-genre, and THE BLACK PHONE utilizes it to great effect. From the opening sequence one picks up on classic Stephen King-esque tropes (so it comes as no surprise to learn his son, Joe Hill, is the creator of the story the film is based on.) Foul-mouthed children on bicycles, bullies, and an underdog you can instantly root for all culminate into a very recognizable setting. Establishing shots of retro kitchenware and an orange/brown color palate introduce us to a late-seventies any-town in a time before children had cell phones, tracking apps, and school pick-up protocols. Sharp dialogue and well-paced exposition get the story started immediately, but beyond a tight script, what makes this film work is the relationship between our sibling heroes Finney and Gwen, convincingly portrayed by Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, respectively. Their chemistry as brother and sister leaves no room for doubt—you instantly care for these children.
The film wastes no time showcasing the danger surrounding these kids. From a rough home life to trouble at school, it appears the children in this film aren’t safe anywhere—including on their travels between said settings: the perilous walk to and from school. A child-abductor is on the loose (dubbed “The Grabber”) and he’s inspired a sort of bogeyman-like mythos among the neighborhood kids. One by one Finney’s male classmates are disappearing, creating a sense of dread wearily delivered by Thames’ performance. Add a sibling with psychic abilities and you have a plot that could only work coming from a descendant of a master of horror storytelling (and one who has proven his own prowess within the genre as well).
The film excels in its performances. Finney is a child whose daily struggles have prepared him to remain level-headed in crisis and Mason Thames carries the film with great strength—quite a feat for someone of his age. Ethan Hawke, as the masked Grabber, provides some incredible voice-work and very unnerving body language. His character thrives on what we don’t know about him, yet we know everything we need to know through implications in his performance. He’s certainly earned his keep through his slew of horror films over the years.
The distracting element for me was the basement where the abducted little boys are kept, as it does look a little too polished—the scummy walls and layout are designed with perhaps a bit too much intention and come off as a fabricated set rather than a real basement under a house someone lives in. And I will say there was a blatant instance of “why don’t you just use _______ to escape?!” At a point Finney remarks that he’s tried everything, but…come on…did you really?
I found myself surprisingly engaged in this suspense/thriller in the guise of Blumhouse horror. A misleading trailer didn’t rattle much excitement in me, but the film stands strong and gives me hope for the hit-or-miss production company.
Answer the phone—this time the call is coming from beyond inside the house.