You might be forgiven for thinking The Black Phone is adapted from a Stephen King novel, with its 1970s, Colorado town setting, complete with a childrens’ baseball game, sleepy suburban streets, and a supernatural thread running through it. Yet despite all of this, The Black Phone is actually based on the 2004 short story of the same name by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), adapted into a screenplay by Sinister (2012) writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Their screenplay is faithful to the short story, but its blend of humour and drama is uneven and its dialogue is frequently cringey. Like a Stephen King novel though, the horror elements shine through, making for an imbalanced but creepy child abduction film.
The aforementioned town in Colorado has been tormented for some time when the story begins; there is a darkness lurking in its quaint streets in the form of a masked man who has been abducting children in broad daylight. The black van he drives and the black balloons at the crime scenes give the inept police only a small clue in tracking him down.
At the centre of The Black Phone’s story is Finney, played by the excellent newcomer Mason Thames, a timid boy with a steely interior that hasn’t quite been released yet. His character is predictable and cliché, but Thames adds a likeability to Finney, ensuring the audience connects with him from the very beginning. Finney quickly becomes the fifth child to be abducted, locked in a soundproof basement with no clear way out. That is, until a mysterious black phone on the wall rings, connecting him with the ghosts of the children who have been there before.
Seeing as most of The Black Phone takes place in this single room setting, Derrickson and Cargill do well to keep the suspense up. The ghosts of the children are suitably chilling and gory, whilst the masked man’s frequent visits are spinetingling, his presence always hanging over the basement even in his absence. A surprising but inspired choice for this horror film as the villain, Ethan Hawke adds a demented loon to the masked man, either with his face fully covered or only his eyes showing. It is impressive how terrifying he still is through just his eyes or via his low, threatening voicework.
When The Black Phone leans into its central plot and themes – child trauma, the oft uselessness of adults, the strength of children – as well as its horror elements, things click together in suitably scary fashion. The Black Phone might not be consistently terrifying, but it has its moments, ones to make you jump and ones to make you shiver with unease. Ultimately, it is let down by an undercooked, patchy script and odd stylistic and editing choices that remove well-built tension. Look past these flaws though, and The Black Phone should leave you chilled and disturbed, and maybe even afraid to pick up the phone for a few days.
DIRECTOR: Scott Derrickson
STARS: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies
RUNTIME: 102 minutes