There are a number of reasons why the likes of “Jaws”, “The Exorcist” and “Halloween” are fondly remembered as terrifying, nightmare-inducing classics nearly 50 years later, but “Jaws 4: The Revenge” , “The Exorcist: The Beginning” and “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” are not.
What sets the original horror movies apart from the onslaught (pun intended) of increasingly worse sequels is that they’re mostly standalone stories about a single family and the one force of evil that try to kill them.
As the sequels progress, the supernatural entities get bigger and more ridiculous, making current horror series such as “Scream”, “The Conjuring” and the rebooted sequel “Halloween” all the more so. more boring and not scary.
Luckily, filmmaker Scott Derrickson is about to write and direct some of the best one-off horror films of the past decade, and he’s back with “The Black Phone,” a horror/thriller film from the 1970s based on the 2004 short story of the same name by Joe Hill.
Although he dipped his toes into franchise work with ‘Doctor Strange,’ Derrickson excels with his small, indie images that still have a supernatural element but work best as a look at the real horrors humans can inflict on themselves. , which is exactly what it does here.
In 1978, a serial child killer nicknamed “The Grabber” (played by Ethan Hawke) prowls the streets of a Denver suburb where teenage siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live with. their father (Jeremy Davies), a violent alcoholic.
After some friends he knew from school were taken away weeks earlier, Finney is abducted by the Grabber on his way home and taken to a small soundproof basement. In the basement is a disconnected black phone that doesn’t work, until it starts ringing and the voices of the Grabber’s previous victims are on the other end.
As the police search Finney struggles to get breaks despite the help of Gwen, who is able to have psychic dreams about the Grabber and the victims, Finney uses all the help he can from the spirits of the victims in hoping to escape before it’s too late.
While it’s still technically a horror movie, which helps put “The Black Phone” above the gore-fest frenzy and jump-scares in which most films go. horror morphed is Derrickson’s focus on characters and situations. The terror of kidnapping and child abuse is still present, but there is much more time spent with children interacting with each other, building relationships and struggling to get by on their own despite the obstacles placed before them. opposites.
Both Thames and McGraw are the heart and soul of the story, portraying not only an affectionate sibling duo, but also believable real kids who sound and act like tweens would. Having to deal with bullies at school and at home, the two young actors excel in tough times of desperation as well as the occasional humorous moments of levity.
Meanwhile, Hawke once again delivers an outstanding performance in a series of big roles that demonstrate just how far he will go. Few A-list stars would be okay with a mask covering half or all of their face for 95% of a movie, but Hawke makes the Grabber a thoroughly creepy and sometimes sad villain through all of his ability to actor, not just his face.
It might sound like a cheap gimmick in the description, but getting the spirits of dead children to speak to Finney via the black phone works surprisingly well and is effective in both the scares and the emotional journey he goes on. . Not completely devoid of jump scares, as they are used sparingly here and only in relation to the black phone, the sudden scares are completely deserved.
The late 1970s setting works perfectly for the story since it was the start of the huge danger of strangers and missing children over the milk carton period, but Derrickson takes things a step further. For the duration of the run, even the early “happy” moments are overshadowed, with nothing about the city being particularly pleasant. Getting kids to learn to trust each other and try to solve the problem despite unhelpful adults is an inspiring twist on a classic horror story.