GORE IN THE STORE

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THE BLACK PHONE ***

 

Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies.
Horror, US, 102 minutes, certificate 15.


Released in the UK in cinemas 22nd June by Universal.

 

After walking away from Marvel Studios due to creative differences over DR STRANGE AND THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, director Scott Derrickson returns to collaborate with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill and Ethan Hawke. Fans of their previous collaboration SINISTER will no doubt be looking forward to this 1978 set tale of an abducted child trying to outwit his creepy kidnapper with the help of his previous victims through the titular device. Based on Joe Hill’s short story from his collection 20th Century Ghosts this is a creepily effective tale that manages to get under the skin with Hawke’s committed performance and its compelling storyline.

 

Childhood is tough enough for teenage Finney. Whether it is trying not to upset his abusive, alcoholic father or sneaking through the corridors of his high school to avoid being bullied his hands are pretty full. To heap trauma upon trauma there is also the matter of a figure known locally as The Grabber, a mysterious figure who has been abducting children around the area. When Finney finds himself in a soundproof basement held captive by this nightmarish, masked figure he soon finds himself relying on the help from the basements previous tenants who contact through a disconnected phone hanging on the basement wall.

 

Derrickson returns to some old visual staples here to deliver the scares; mainly flickering 8mm footage of creepy goings on and skilfully revealed jump scares, but he layers it nicely with a compelling set-up that is not afraid to take its time before getting to its hook laden premise. The casual cruelty that children face, from each other and those above them is presented in a matter-of-fact way along with the amusingly less than politically correct ways in which they vent their frustrations. By the time The Grabber enters the picture fully the stage has already been set for a tense face off where it seems that anything could happen to this film’s protagonist no matter how sympathetic or young he is.

 

Derrickson dials back on the quiet/loud jump scares that were so prevalent in SINISTER and manages to deliver something that is far creepier and malevolent here. He is aided in no small part by Hawke’s performance which is something of an achievement in itself as he manages to avoid showing his face for the majority of the film. Hidden behind a series of ghoulish masks, designed by Tom Savini and Jason Baker, that seem to reflect, or even influence, his moods Hawke makes for a truly disturbing villain. The reasons why he is doing this are never really explained or looked into which feels like a missed opportunity but the familiar leading man still manages to make the most of his role with little more than his eyes and a voice that flits from lilting to fiercely gravelly at the drop of a hat.

 

As Finney, Mason Thames makes for a more interesting than usual hero with a vulnerable yet steely performance who refuses to give up while Madeleine McGraw as his younger foul-mouthed sister with a particular gift also manages to inject the proceedings with a nicely realised sense of humour that halts the film from becoming an exercise in trauma and peril.

 

The first two thirds of the film could be Derrickson’s best film yet. With well written characters, expert direction that sets out its unnerving tone and one of the best scores of the year from composer Mark Korven that helps ramp up the tension scene by scene. A pity then that the films final act rushes and fumbles its way to the end credits with some clumsily delivered exposition and a resolution that fails to deliver something truly or gratifying or much in the way of audience satisfaction. Until then though this delivers as a crowd-pleasing mainstream horror for the most part in a way that has not been felt for some time on the big screen so far this year.

 

Iain MacLeod.

 

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