THE BLACK PHONE (2022)
Thriller takes place in 1978 in a working-class suburb of Denver, Colorado. It focuses on Finny Shaw (Mason Thames) who has enough problems with school bullies and an alcoholic father, but there is also a series of child abductions being committed by a mysterious individual the press has dubbed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Finny is kidnaped himself by the masked serial killer and finds himself locked in a sound-proof basement. The boy gets help from unusual sources as a disconnected phone in his prison bares the voices of previous victims and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who shares her late mother’s gift for clairvoyance, tries to help police find him. Is it enough to keep Finny from being The Grabber’s next victim?
The Black Phone is directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) from his script with C. Robert Cargill, based on Joe Hill’s short story. Derrickson smartly gives us a little time to get to know Finny, and his life at the moment, so we are endeared to him when Hawke’s creepy Grabber abducts him. We then intercut between Finney receiving phone messages from beyond, while police search for him with Gwen trying to help through her dream visions. It could have gotten silly quick with both a psychic sister and phone calls from dead kids on the menu, but Derrickson keeps it chilling and tense as Finny tries to find a way to escape. It also helps that Hawke’s Grabber is a disturbing yet grounded psycho who never goes over the top or falls into camp. He remains calm most of the time and that’s scarier. Derrickson only falters by once again letting James Ransone play a borderline goofy character that disrupts the serious tone and overdoing it a bit with his grainy footage schtick, which seems to be the only reason the film is set in the 70s. Gwen’s visions appear like old grainy film stock a la Sinister’s old film footage sequences. It doesn’t fit in as well here. Otherwise, this is a well-crafted thriller with some good lead performances and a worthy confrontation between victim and villain were certain puzzle pieces also fall into place.
The cast are mostly good with a very strong performance by young Mason Thames as Finny. Finny is resilient and smart, but a bit meek at times, despite showing there is some strength inside him. He and Hawke work very well together. Hawke is very good here and once again proves he is a versatile and underrated actor. His Grabber is low key and calm and that makes him all the scarier as he appears confident and in control, despite being obviously very twisted and deranged. Madeline McGraw is also excellent as the apparently psychic Gwen. She’s a tough and sometimes foul-mouthed little girl but determined to find her brother. A very strong performance from the young actress. Not so impressive is James Ranson as Max. This is a goofy and almost unnecessary character, and it interrupts the tension when his goofball antics are on screen. Also weak is Jeremy Davies as the siblings’ alcoholic father Terrance. The character simply should have been stronger and more threatening, thus his change to sympathetic would have been more impressive later on. Otherwise, a good cast!
Overall, this was a solid thriller with some impactful violence and some suspenseful moments. There were some strong performances from the leads, which helps make the more supernatural elements here work. There were a few supporting character missteps, but Hawke and Thames portrayed strong characters that made them good adversaries. An effective and tense thriller from the Doctor Strange director.
Rated 3 (out of 4) wall phones
FRANKENSTEIN vs. THE MUMMY (2015)
What could have been a fun monster flick is instead, at almost two hours, an overlong and extremely talkie bore with the title creatures battling for less than five minutes at the climax. The story has an Egyptian mummy being studied at a university by pretty Archeologist Naihla (Ashton Leigh) while Dr. Frankenstein (Max Rhyser)…or “Dr. F” as his students call him…teaches there while conducting his usual experiments. Obviously, as Naihla and the good doctor date, their respective projects are destined to clash.
Writer/director Damien Leone doesn’t do a bad job directing, it’s just that his script and tone are trying way too hard to make a serious horror out of a SYFY movie plot. There are endlessly long dialogue scenes and while the gore and make-up are quite well done, the film’s main selling point is treated as practically an afterthought at the film’s climax. I appreciate the taking of the story seriously, but do we need a 10 minute bonding conversation between Victor’s henchman and a homeless man he intends to kill anyway? Nowhere near the fun it should have been.
COME BACK TO ME (2014)
Film has an interesting premise, but unfortunately, is a bit weak on the execution. Flick has pretty wife Sarah (Katie Walder) suffering from blackouts and unexplained injuries who finds out her creepy neighbor (Nathan Keyes) is stalking her, too. Unknown to Sarah these events are connected as stalker Dale has a unique gift that he is using in a nightmarish capacity.
While I won’t spoil the disturbing reveal, I do like that writer James Leyden and director Paul Layden took the scenario of someone having a ‘special gift’ and put that gift into the hands of a very disturbed person. It’s like a cruel joke as the power could have been miraculous in the hands of someone with a better moral code and saner mind. Unfortunately, the film could have played the scenario out in a bit more of an intense and interesting manner and the acting could have been stronger. Not bad, but a film you wish was just a bit better due to the intriguing and disturbing premise. Climax did have some shock value.
I could write a full review for this really interesting and entertaining flick, but the less you know going in the better. I will say that the movie is based on a Robert A. Heinlein short story about a’ temporal agent’ (Ethan Hawke) whose job it is to travel back in time to prevent criminal or terrorist acts. On his current mission to stop a bombing, the agent makes an illegal stop for more personal reasons to guide the fate of a transgendered male writer (an amazing Sarah Snook) and quite possible throws his mission and the lives of thousands into jeopardy…but why?
Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, this is a very engaging Sci-Fi thriller that makes interesting use of the time travel paradoxes and sometimes really messes with our heads. Added in is a strong performance by Ethan Hawke and a phenomenal performance by Jessabelle’s Sarah Snook and you’ve got some intense thought-provoking science fiction. Highly Recommended!
DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
Drag Me To Hell is an entertaining return to horror from Sam Raimi about a pretty young bank employee who pisses off the wrong gypsy and gets a nasty demonic entity sent her way. Poor Christine (Alison Lohman) has just three days to find a way out of this curse as her supernatural stalker gets stronger and stronger in it’s pursuit of her soul. More fun then scary, it’s like a carnival funhouse with it’s jump scares, loud noises and CGI phantoms that jump out at you without warning. And much like a funhouse it’s all phoney but, we play along anyway for the sake of entertaining ourselves… and that’s what Sam Raimi is counting on. And just so we don’t forget it’s all for fun, there’s plenty of gross out laughs to relieve us from all the jump scares ringmaster Raimi pulls out of his hat. A fun horror flick that makes you jump and giggle and usually at the same time. Also stars Justin Long as her disbelieving boyfriend and a creepy Lorna Raver as the vengeful gypsy, Mrs. Ganush.
An interesting and original horror film-noir about a world in the future where vampires rule and their blood supply, humans, is running out. Ethan Hawke plays Edward (The non-sparkling kind) a vampire scientist searching for a blood substitute before the lack of food turns the vampires into vicious savages who’ll turn on each other. What he finds, through a series of circumstances, is a cure discovered by an ex-vampire turned human rebel, Lionel (Willem Dafoe). Now Edward, Lionel and pretty rebel Audrey (Claudia Karvan) must battle a vampire hierchy (led by Sam Neil) that has little to gain by a world returned to it’s humanity. An intelligent script by writer/directors The Spierig Brothers adds a refreshingly novel take on the oft visited vampire mythos and they are aided by a good cast to tell their blood soaked story. Yes, while more of a noir/action flick, Daybreakers doesn’t ignore it’s horror roots and there are some deliciously gory moments mixed in with the abundant action. And this is not to say that Daybreakers is all action, as the Spierig’s make sure there is enough time devoted to story and character developement to go along with the bullets, chases and blood. A really entertaining and original vampire flick for horror, action and sci-fi fans alike!
HOME MOVIE (2008)
While not entirely successful, Christopher Denham’s horror flick is very creepy and disturbing at times. Told thru the home movies of the Poe family, is the gradual discovery that the Poe’s 10 year old twins (Austin Williams and Amber Joy Williams) are harboring increasingly violent thoughts and twisted behavior. There are some very chilling scenes and the young actors playing the twins are really good at playing creepy. But there are problems… the last 20 minutes is when things totally disintegrate but, I wasn’t as disturbed as I should have been. Maybe because you can see it all coming from a mile away. There are some annoying lapses in logic, especially when the parents start to realize what’s going on, and when they first try to deal with it themselves… their psychiatrist mother (Cady McClain) with pills, their pastor father (Adrian Pasdar) with an exorcism… you can almost understand why these kids are so messed up. Pasdar’s over the top performance also hurts because, the rest of the cast does so well in their roles. He tries way too hard. Overall a disturbing movie with some twisted scenes but, not as consistanly so as it should have been or we would have liked. Still worth a watch.
THE PURGE (2013)
The Purge is one of those movies that comes up with a fairly interesting premise then does something incredibly routine with it. The story takes place in the near future where crime in the United States is almost non-existant thanks to “The Purge”, one night a year where for 12 hours between 7 P.M. and 7 A.M. all crime including murder is legal and anyone who wishes to vent their internal anger and hatred can do so…while those who can afford it, hunker down in their fortified homes and watch it on TV. It’s seen as a release of negative emotion and a way to thin the poor and middle class who can’t afford home lock down systems as sold by James Sandin (Ethan Hawke). James and his family live in a very rich neighborhood in a very large house which is the envy of even their wealthy neighbors. James fully supports The Purge as he feels it makes the country a better place to live and also makes him able to afford his large house through the sales of his home security system designed to keep The Purge out and those that can afford it, safely in…or so he thinks.
This is where writer/director James DeMonaco fails to make good use of his premise. Sandin and wife Mary (Lena Headey), gadget loving son Charlie (Max Burkholder) and hot teen daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), complete with school girl outfit, get ready for the event to begin and not long after it does, a man (Edwin Hodge) shows up at their door bloodied and begging for help. Sensitive Charlie let’s him in and soon the house is surrounded by those pursuing him, a masked group of well armed youths who give the Sandins the choice of sending their prey out or they will come in and kill everyone. A good portion of the film is the moral dilemma that splits the family, should they hand over the man who Charlie is helping hide in their home, or do the right thing and try to protect him. It’s no secret that the thugs outside eventually will have reason to come in and start the blood flowing. And that’s kinda it.
The film takes an interesting premise and settles for basically being yet another home invasion/siege film where a family sheltered from violence is forced to use it to save their own lives. And the slight twist in the last act, and the stupid subplot involving Zoey’s boyfriend, really doesn’t do anything to make the film any more interesting. It’s just another routine variation on the latest horror trend which is masked kooks trapping people in their own house that seems to have started with the much better The Strangers and the French thriller Them (Ils), thought you can even trace it back to John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 from 1976. DeMonaco directs the film competently and there is some tension and suspense, but we’ve seen it all before right down to the dumb decisions characters make in order to keep the plot moving.
The cast are fine with Hawke giving his usual sturdy performance though Headey is wasted as Mary, mostly looking upset or crying for the most part. Burkholder can be a bit annoying as Charlie and Adelaide Kane, whose character disappears for long stretches without explanation, reminds me of a young Eliza Dushku before she developed the intensity she showed in Buffy. Not as impressive, but she might have potential. As for our villains, only the leader (Rhys Wakefield) takes his mask off and is a stereotypical arrogant, elitist yuppie with his group being your typical masked giggling and skipping loonies we’ve seen a lot in films recently. Maybe if they weren’t so busy acting like giggling, skipping children, they wouldn’t get gunned down so easily by a family that’s never had to kill before.
Overall The Purge is not a terrible movie, it’s just one with a good idea that limits itself to a very routine and thus very forgettable use of that idea…and so it’s a very routine and thus very forgettable movie. It was however a box office hit, so a sequel is on the way. Maybe they will make better use of their concept this time… maybe…
2 and 1/2 bullets!