The Black Phone is a hugely rewarding horror film, delivering an equal measure of nostalgia, reverence and terror.

The Black Phone has been a long time coming. From the moment director Scott Derrickson picked up a copy of Joe Hill’s short story 17 years ago, to the messy release schedule on account of the pandemic, it goes without saying that it has been a long and arduous period of anticipation and frustration.

But the wait is finally over and the burning question on everyone’s lips is, “Is it good?” Yes. Yes it is. In fact, The Black Phone is very good indeed and managed to exceed this humble reviewer’s expectations.

The year is 1978 and there’s a child killer on the loose. Four kids have been abducted by a predator known as The Grabber, whose modus operandi is to snatch them off the street in his big black van. We are introduced to Finney and Gwen, a brother and sister whose mother committed suicide and father is a violent drunk. After a considerable amount of exposition, which establishes a particularly moving bond between the siblings, Finney is snatched by The Grabber and locked in a reinforced basement.

Like their mother, Gwen has the ability to dream psychically, and she sees her brother’s captivity. While she desperately tries to hone in on his whereabouts, Finney has discovered his own supernatural abilities, and is guided by The Grabber’s previous victims, who contact him through an old disconnected phone on the basement wall. The police are also on The Grabber’s trail, and to reveal more would be to spoil things…

The Black Phone is a hugely rewarding horror film, delivering an equal measure of nostalgia, reverence and terror. Derrickson has crafted a period piece that presents the late ’70s with an authenticity that only those who lived through it will fully comprehend. It was a time before the internet, when kids played rough and stayed outside until the streetlights came on. Stranger danger was a new concept, and there was little education to protect youngsters.

Derrickson masterfully leans into the period and exploits the state of panic that gripped so many neighbourhoods at the time, and he depicts childhood with the brutal realism that many Gen Xers will recall vividly. It was the milk carton era, where missing children’s faces became part of every family’s breakfast routine, and kids were warned not to take candy from strangers.

The film is also very violent, but not at all as the average viewer would expect. The horror is certainly intense and The Grabber is definitely the stuff of nightmares, but Derrickson has reserved the violence and brutality for the schoolyard, where bullies roam with busted knuckles. It’s difficult to watch but contextualised, and pays off in dividends.

Ethan Hawke assumes the role of The Grabber with a cool, calm demeanour that casts a shroud of terror over the screen. Hidden behind a perforated mask, which can be worn three different ways as to reveal different personas, he embraces the menace and aims to chill. Hawke is typically known to play good guys, and The Black Phone has given him something new to sink his teeth into, which he does with disturbing ease.

Young Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are excellent as Finney and Gwen, whose relationship is as endearing as any you’re likely to recall seeing on the screen. These two kids click and their rapport binds the entire film. McGraw is particularly excellent, with an emotional range akin to a seasoned player decades into their career. Career weirdo Jeremy Davies plays their violent alcoholic father, and true to his reputation, he doesn’t hold back and is very good.

The Black Phone is the best horror movie of the year, and will likely be remembered for its authenticity. Having been adapted from a story by Joe Hill (son of horror icon Stephen King) and directed by the guy who made The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister (plus Doctor Strange), it’s a fresh – and dare we say original – take on a familiar genre.

Think of Stranger Things and The Lovely Bones meeting somewhere in the middle, and throw in a smidgen of The Silence of the Lambs, and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect.

Interview with Ethan Hawke

In cinemas: July 21, 2022 with advance screenings July 15–17
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Scott Derrickson