Phones in serial killer movies are usually used by the deranged hunters to taunt the police or carefully tell victims how they’ll die. But in The Black Phone it’s the other way around, fitting for a horror-thriller that flips many of the genre’s formula.
The serial killer at the heart of Scott Derrickson’s latest film is clueless about the chunky wall-mounted rotary phone in his soundproof dungeon. He tells his victims it hasn’t worked in years. They think otherwise: They use it to communicate with each other.
The kid-centric thriller, which opens in Taiwan on July 1, is a very satisfying balancing act of a movie that has elements of supernatural, psychological suspense and horror but never falls heavily into a single camp. It also has one of the most satisfying ending of a horror-thriller in recent years.
The film — set in northern Denver in 1978 — follows 13-year-old Finney, played with real verve by newcomer Mason Thames. The filmmakers establish a grim mood right from the start, with wide-scale bullying, school-yard fights, bloody bruises and alcoholic and abusive parents. Add to this mix, the low-level buzz of homemade missing posters on walls.
KILLER ON THE PROWL
There’s a serial killer prowling, nicknamed The Grabber, (In a nod to John Wayne Gacy, he’s a professional magician. And in perhaps another nod to The Steve Miller Band, he drives around in a black truck emblazoned with the word Abracadabra, fitting the lyrics “I wanna reach out and grab ya.”) Five teen boys have vanished. Finney — and his spunky younger sister, a fabulous Madeleine McGraw — are old enough to understand stranger abduction but still young enough to think that saying his name out loud is unlucky.
Finney knows a few of the victims but gets a first-hand knowledge when The Grabber — a confusing Ethan Hawke — nabs him and locks him in his basement, a space meant to hold humans. It’s carefully curated except for that black phone the killer says is disconnected, it’s wires cut. So why does it keep ringing for Finney?
Poor Hawk is marooned as another one of those pure movie psychos, by turns gentlemanly and menacing. We’ve seen his like before, a chilling precision with enunciation and that relentless, bloodless toying with his victim. His only stand-out quality is a very good collection of creepy masks. (Halloween will be super nuts this year if this movie takes off.)
The Black Phone is in some ways a reteaming of the guys who made Sinister in 2012 — Derrickson and cowriter C Robert Cargill partnered with producer Jason Blum and Hawke for that one, too. This time, they’re leaning on horror royalty — the source material is a short story by Joe Hill, the pen name of Joe King, son of Stephen King.
The filmmakers, to my mind, lean a little too much on the supernatural to free Finney — does the phone really need to periodically beat like a heart? — but that’s me. The movie has a Stranger Things-meets-Room vibe and even namechecks a film deep in its debt: Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
‘DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS’
The film’s tagline is “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and it’s painfully wrong. While applicable to The Grabber, Finn learns that the voices on the other end of the black phone are his previous victims. They’re helping him, each call a way to outwit The Grabber and, put together, a way home safe.
“Use what we gave you,” one disembodied voice counsels.
What makes The Black Phone stand out is how it perfectly captures what growing up was like in the often raw ‘70s and an utter respect for the world of kids. Every adult is either dismissive and distant — or downright murderous. At its center is the fraternity of teen victims and the bond between sister and brother working against the twisted adult world. It will, uh, grab you.
To the consternation of its biological father — China — the young nation of Taiwan seems to prefer its step-dad, Japan. When the latter was forced out, a semi-modernized iteration of the former returned. And just as some people thrive as adults, despite an unstable childhood, Taiwan has become a democratic success. Unfortunately, the island’s biological father behaves like a parent who is no use, yet who continues to meddle. A combination of rose-tinted retrospection and growing mutual respect has given many Taiwanese a highly positive attitude toward Japan. Physical reminders of the 1895-1945 period of Japanese rule are treasured,
Born in Aldershot in 1959, Russell Foster is a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford and the director of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology. For his discovery of non-rod, non-cone ocular photoreceptors he received numerous awards including the Zoological Society scientific medal. His latest book — the first he has written without a co-author — is Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It Can Revolutionize Your Sleep and Health. The Guardian: What is circadian neuroscience? Russell Foster: It’s the fundamental understanding of how our biology ticks on a 24-hour basis. But also it’s bigger than that —
How does Hong Kong look to people born in the year of the handover — for whom the city has always been under Chinese sovereignty? Some feel their fate is tied to Hong Kong’s, while others feel like bystanders as Beijing tightens its grip. Many plan to leave sooner or later. We spoke to six 24 and 25-year-olds about the Hong Kong they grew up in, and the one they expect to exist in another 25 years. THE RETURNING PROFESSIONAL “I feel helpless witnessing the changes that Hong Kong has been through,” said Keanne Lee. “At the same time, I want to keep
In the new world of work, there’s a new type of employee: The business-leisure traveler. It’s the latest attempt to find a happy medium between working arrangements like Airbnb’s — where staff can work anywhere, anytime — and those at companies like Tesla Inc, whose chief executive officer Elon Musk tweeted that unless employees turn up in the office, “we will assume you have resigned.” Business-leisure travelers are a subset of digital nomads, living and working abroad for longer than a typical holiday without taking up permanent residence. They usually spend weeks or months overseas before returning home, while other nomads may