“Are those black balloons in there?” [OMG RUN KID]
Story: It’s 1978 y’all! Pinball machines, stripe-y ski vests, and a serial killer? Yeah, that last one isn’t the best thing to happen to the Denver suburbs. (Not the worst either, but moving on…) But “The Grabber” has been making kids disappear for a while, so when junior high student Finney meets a magician who seems to need help with a bag of groceries? Oh Finney. Don’t help. Whups, too late.
Subgenre: Scary Clowns Are Bad Crime Chillers
Release Date: 2022
FX: Brief, but well done and not overused.
Clichés: Psychic Kid Is Psychic, Vans Are Bad Y’all, Parents Suck, School Sucks, Friends ‘Til The End
Spooky or Nah?: I’d heard this film was the scariest thing that has come out this year. Hmm. Well, scary is relative. Are we talking truly chilling, like “this is disturbing and I’m freaked out”? Or maybe horrific, like “I have to jump into my bed because I’m afraid of what could be under it”? Perhaps a complete and total gross-out “I need a Silkwood shower after watching this” vibe? In my humble opinion, Phone is chilling, with a touch of horror and a wee soupçon of gross-out. With me? No? Okay fine, I’ll elaborate. *stretches out typin’ fingers*
Phone is based on the story of the same name by Joe Hill (from his collection 20th Century Ghosts, in case you’re interested in reading it, and you really should), blends together several types creepy ideas into a seamless whole. You’ve got your missing kids, a truly messed up serial killer, ghosts bent on revenge, psychic kids, and even a Law&Order-esque police procedural. I’ve always thought that short stories make great films, because their plots are easier to squeeze into a two-hours-or-so film adaptation than a great big honkin’ novel. (See: oh, just about any Reddit thread that talks about how a film adaptation left out The Things, and therefore sucks.)
Phone is a perfect example of how to turn a compelling story on a page into a compelling story onscreen. From the beginning credits that show a spookier, MCU-like Blumhouse opening logo, to the brilliant use of 70s-era songs and composer Mark Korven’s affecting end credits score, Phone is meticulously crafted to give viewers an entertaining bit of fright, without reaching for pointless jump scares or overdone gross-outs. To paraphrase Goldilocks, when it comes to horror, Phone is just right.
A good chunk of this film’s success is thanks to a chilling, believable performance by Ethan Hawke. As “The Grabber”, Hawke is hopeful, horrific, and even heartbreaking. There’s a scene where the killer actually tears up, hinting at the extremely damaged psyche within. Dammit, you almost had me caring about this monster of a human, movie! No fair! I wouldn’t be surprised if Hawke’s name comes up during awards season, though films that open before the golden-ticket time of late fall/early winter tend to get forgotten by then. That’d be a shame.
Director Scott Derrickson has a deft touch, pulling together bits and pieces of the story, as well as bringing together breadcrumbs of plot sprinkled throughout. His use of film stocks that give the movie a retro look hark back to this year’s X, which would make a great double-feature with this equally 70s-tastic film, now that I think about it. Need another reason to spend your hard-earned here? Well then, my fellow horror-hounds, there’s this; the creepy-ass mask (and it’s chilling switchable jawlines) are created by none other than Mr. Tom Savini himself, along with Jason Baker, a man whom I can’t wait to see even more from now that this sure-to-be-a-Halloween-staple mask of goodness has caught my attention.
Special shout-out to Mason Thames as “The Grabber”‘s latest victim, Finney. Thames has to carry a huge chunk of this film on his shoulders, and he does so seemingly effortlessly. Plus, the onscreen sibling chemistry between Thames and Madeleine McGraw’s Gwen. Don’t like pretentious child actors? No worries here; every single kid on screen is bringing their A-game, delivering performances older actors only wish they could find within themselves. Was there anything I didn’t like, now that I’ve blown so much smoke up this film? Well, as I’d heard so much about The Scary from folks who’d seen Phone at Fantastic Fest, TIFF, and Overlook Film Fest? I was expecting something that’d blow my socks off. Instead, it’s a slow-burn chiller, interspersed with shocking bits of bloody and/or ghostly goodness. So get your brain set for creepy, grab that popcorn, and let the fun begin. And if you’re playing Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” on your way home? Well, I won’t tell. I did that same thing.
Grade: 4.5 out of 5. I considered just a plain-ol’ 5, but I didn’t want to be too much of a brainless simp. But lets just say that ya-gal will be buying this the moment it hits Vudu.