After a brief foray into the MCU, writer and director Scott Derrickson returns to his horror roots for child-killer thriller The Black Phone. Set in Denver, Colorado in the late 1970s, the plot follows young teen Finney (Mason Thames) who dodges school bullies by day only to go back to a tricky home life with little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) and their abusive, alcoholic father. When a string of kids go missing in the neighbourhood, rumour spreads of a crazed kidnapper known as ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) and Finney soon finds himself bundled into the back of his van.
With teens on bikes in American suburbia, a creepy predator on the loose, and some iffy supernatural elements thrown in for good measure, it comes as no surprise to learn that this is based on a short story by Joe Hill, the son of iconic writer Stephen King. There are so many blatant nods to his catalogue of work, from the grainy texture to the yellow raincoat in the rain, that this film should have a crick in its neck. However, the skilled direction from Derrickson reminds us of his talents in this genre and saves the narrative from slipping all the way into copycat parody.
The slightness of the source material becomes increasingly evident as the film progresses, with an effective opening act making way for a schlocky kidnap-infused ghost story. Ethan Hawke’s enjoyable screen presence can only take The Grabber so far and despite his talents and a selection of cool masks, this lazily conceived villain winds up as little more than an emo twist on Pennywise. Thames and McGraw provide very good performances, and sections that focus on their sibling relationship are nicely done; McGraw also supplies the comic relief with her brilliantly potty-mouthed rants at authority.
Owing such a huge debt to the ideas of Stephen King, Derrickson’s latest effort is dragged down by a script that almost bankrupts itself of originality. Despite a madcap leading turn from Ethan Hawke, The Black Phone isn’t as off the hook as it thinks it is.