There is something extra disturbing about child predators in movies. We want to hate them even more than a much more relatable serial killer who might have a motive or two that we secretly sympathize with. Director Scott Derrickson of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Doctor Strange gives us another well-crafted horror/thriller in this new masterpiece known as The Black Phone.
Here, we are served up a 1970s-gourmet meal of cinematography that takes our hatred of child predators to a whole new level. When it needs to feel grimy and dirty, it never misses the mark. Based on the real-life killer clown John Wayne Gacy, the film follows a boy, “Finney Blake” (Mason Thames), and his sister, “Gwen” (Madeleine McGraw) in Denver, Colorado in 1978. Everything seen, from the magazines and cop cars – right down to the arcades, school hallways, and houses – are 1970s to a “t.” Ask me how I know. On second thought, don’t!
Finney and Gwen are fathered by an alcoholic (Jeremy “Saving Private Ryan” Davies). The family lost their mother some time prior to the movie’s start. We learn from the outset of their lingering grief. Like kids at most any school, they are fodder for playground bullies. But the bullies are infinitely preferable to be at the mercy of than “The Grabber,” (Ethan Hawke) who plays one very sadistic bastard.
The Black Phone is long with its 1-hour and 43-minute runtime, but never feels it, even when we get to see glimpses and hear the voices of the exchanges of The Grabber’s past victims, some of which run too long. It feels all too real, but it stops short of taking advantage of its audience with gratuitous gore or atmospheric appeal. It is not hard to see where certain junctures in the film’s plot are going before they arrive. It’s also not hard to find even the most non-interested viewer becoming totally invested in the outcome of the film, no matter what point they start watching from.
Thames and McGraw absolutely make this film, (not even counting Hawke who is an old pro anyway), but the real brilliant up-and-comer here is McGraw who already has a number of acting credits to her name, including American Sniper and Toy Story 4 (as the voice of “Bonnie”). But it’s worth mentioning that we get to see an ROI on the ample time spent in developing all supporting characters that make this picture such an unforgettable experience right to the last scene.