After a tour of duty in Superhero films, Scott Derrickson returns to his horror roots with a chilling adaptation of Joe Hill’s The Black Phone. Featuring a terrifying performance from Ethan Hawke, the film picks up an excellent upgrade to 4K UHD from German label Turbine Medien. Featuring a new Dolby Vision HDR grade, the film looks better than the old Blu-ray and the streaming versions currently available. Toss in an excellent Atmos mix to match with all previous bonus features for a solid release of a creepy flick just in time for the spooky season. Highly Recommended
In a small northern suburb of Denver, Colorado, children are going missing. The cops and the press call the kidnapper “the Grabber.” No one sees anything. No one hears anything. The kids just vanish with a black balloon left at the scene. With the news on T.V. and the papers, it’s impossible for Finney and his younger sister Gwen not to notice the stories. When Finney is grabbed by a man in a black van with black balloons, he’s imprisoned in a soundproof basement… with a disconnected black phone mounted on the wall. Only when the phone rings it isn’t help on the line, it’s the souls of The Grabber’s victims.
While the average moviegoer may know Scott Derrickson for his efforts with Doctor Strange, horror is where he got his start with the underappreciated director-to-video Hellraiser: Inferno, and bigger entries like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. He also helmed the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still - but I won’t hold that against him. Large or small budget, Derrickson has a knack for building terror and suspense while pulling great performances from his cast. The Black Phone is no exception in that department.
Where The Black Phone succeeds best is with its cast. At the top of the pack is Ethan Hawke as the masked Grabber. He may not have the most screentime, but he instantly makes an impression - even through a mask designed by the legendary Tom Savini. Mason Thames does a tremendous job as Finney carrying a lot of the emotional and physical load of the film. Madeleine McGraw holds her own as the bratty foul-mouthed sister. James Ransone turns in another energetic performance as the hapless Max. Last but not least, we have a small but great turn from Jeremy Davies who somehow always knows how to steal a scene.
Given the familial relationship, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Joe Hill’s story feels very much like a stripped-down version of It. Keeping the supernatural elements to a minimum, the story is lean and tight and to the point. Placing the story in the 1970s removes a lot of technological “what-ifery” from the equation. No cell phones. No internet. The rumors and stories of the Grabber circulate by word-of-mouth until he becomes a creepy legend. It also removes the ever-so-lame “track the device” cliche from the pair of detectives featured in the film. It explains just enough to set the stage and let you become invested with the story before getting out of the way to let the creepiness do its work.
Where I have a slight issue with The Black Phone it’s with the ending. Not that the solution is a problem, the film sets it up perfectly peppering the clues bit by bit. The issue I had was how abrupt it was. All of a sudden we’re into the film’s end game and it all moves so quickly it’s over before you had a chance to really blink. It’s a small gripe in the scheme of things but it’s the one I’ve got. I can see some folks getting nitpicky with the premise and a few areas here and there, but overall I really enjoyed this chiller little thriller.
All around, The Black Phone was a better horror film than expected, and certainly better than what the trailers were pitching to the target audience. I can see how this wasn’t exactly an easy film to market and distill down to a 2-minute trailer without giving away the whole show. Even with some familiarity with the original short story, this adaptation still managed to put a suspenseful lump in my throat. Again, that’s largely because Ethan Hawke is just so damn scary. He’s on quite the run these days picking very interesting and dynamic roles. Not to suggest he never did, but his output lately has been fire. Even through a mask he delivers a creepy and disturbing performance and quite honestly makes The Black Phone that much stronger.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray (Check Disc)
Scott Derickson's The Black Phone hits 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from Turbine Medien. For this review, we were sent a 4K UHD check disc ahead of the final street date product in October. When we can, we’ll circle back and update this review for a full look at either the Mediabook or the SteelBook. From the Check disc we received, the film is pressed on a Region Free BD-66 disc. The disc loads to an English main menu with standard navigation options. The German audio is the default track, so you will have to switch that up before proceeding to the main feature.
The Black Phone lives up to its titular color. This is a dark-looking film and in 1080p that was a bit of a give and take. Overall I thought it looked pretty good in 1080p but it wasn’t flashy or all that eye-popping of a transfer. Out of curiosity, I picked up the 4K streaming version when it was on sale and I had credits to burn and was dismayed by how dim the 4K Dolby Vision streaming experience was. Scenes that clearly took place in daylight looked more like late twilight. Likewise, blacks could swamp the image of any detail and whites were anemic barely rising above a washed-out tan shade. The opening when the kids are playing baseball is a key point there.
The good news here is Turbine saw this and gave the film a new Dolby Vision HDR grade for their 4K release to mitigate those issues. Make no mistake, this is still a very dark-looking film, but it’s now a bit brighter with cleaner whites in the places that make sense. The white title card letters and baseball uniforms at the beginning actually look nice and crisp white. Likewise, scenes at school that are supposed to take place during the day actually look like daytime. This becomes all the more important once the action of the film moves into The Grabber’s basement with the ominous shadows and minimal lighting sources or when we see Finney’s home life. Those are areas where the streaming presentation I looked at on Vudu and iTunes was just way too dim to appreciate any fine details.
To that piece, I thought the added definition really helped for some of the darker spookier scenes with the ghosts over the 1080p release. They’re still steeped in deep dark shadows, but you can also discern more fine details in their haggard decaying appearances. The same goes for Hawke’s creepy modular mask and his various appearances. The improved blacks let the image enjoy some additional dimension and depth. Details are strong with clean fine lines and clothing textures letting you soak in those 70s fashions. Given the color palette, this film isn’t exactly a visually aggressive show-stopper like Spider-Man, but it at least looks much better here than in streaming or on the 1080p Blu-ray. Now I don’t know if Universal will be using this new grade for their upcoming 4K disc, we’ll be reviewing that too once we get hands on a copy.
What was already great in DTS-HD MA 7.1 is made even more impressive with Dolby Atmos. The Black Phone. Essentially one can take the 7.1 mix that’s already good and dial up everything that works so well a few extra notches. The phone voices were already creepy, but I felt like there was something more prominent with that otherworldly dissonant tone whenever anyone spoke. LFE tones also feel a little more impactful with the subs getting some extra rattle for hard-impact sound effects or the lowkey tones in the score by Mark Corven. Some of those jumpscare stingers really punch now. Like the previous mix, there’s plenty of surround activity to keep those channels working, but I really enjoyed the sporadic pin-point placement into the heights. A rainstorm certainly gets some attention in that regard, but even the subtle atmospherics within the Grabber’s basement feel more precise. Like the visuals, this isn’t the most sonically aggressive track to get the Atmos treatment, but it’s a welcome improvement over an already great mix.
On the bonus features side of things, we get to enjoy the same set of extra features as before. Once again Scott Derrickson’s audio commentary is the cream of the crop detailing various aspects of the production, recreating the 70s period locations and design, and working with Hawke on finding that damned creepy persona. While brief, the various behind-the-scenes and interview segments glean some interesting info. Again because we were issued a Check Disc, I haven’t gotten to see the essay materials in the Mediabook but I’m sure that’ll be worthwhile too.
It’s been a couple of years since I reviewed The Black Phone and I’m still very much impressed by the film. It doesn’t overplay its hand letting Joe Hill’s creepy tale of psychological horror intermingle with a traditional ghost story. Hawke is a true standout as the Grabber with Mason Thames delivering as the captive Finney. German label Turbine Medien steps in to call up The Black Phone on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. With a new Dolby Vision HDR grade, the image easily passes the previous 1080p release and makes fitting improvements to the dicey streaming transfer. Cap it off with an excellent Atmos audio track and the returning bonus features, and you’ve got a hell of a set. Now all you have to ask is do you get the SteelBook or one of the stylish Mediabooks? Highly Recommended
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