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THE PHANTOMS OF THE PHONELINE: ‘The Black Phone’ Review

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Sinister is one of my favorite horror movies, plain and simple. And hearing that Scott Derrickson was back with C. Robert Cargill and flying under the banner of prolific producer Jason Blum, I was optimistically skeptical of how this film would measure up against that instant classic, given all the heavy praise The Black Phone has been getting. After all, lightning rarely strikes twice.

But funny enough, it wasn’t Derrickson’s creative voice I kept hearing throughout the movie. I was laughing sitting through the credits of this film because one of my recurring thoughts during the runtime was, “Wow, this really feels like a Joe Hill story.” I was reminiscing on the likes of Locke and Key & The Low, Low Woods, unaware that the Son of King himself left his unmistakable fingerprints on this with that same creativity he always brings.

He gets a story by credit on this that I missed during the slick opening of the film, as this is an adaptation of the tale from his anthology “20th Century Ghosts”; we follow a young boy kidnapped by a child murderer, attempting to escape using advice from specters that speak through the disconnected rotary phone in his underground prison. If you’re a fan of Hill’s work, you’ll enjoy this for being the same level of moody and inventive as all his other creations are. While I may have my gripes with this film, there’s plenty to enjoy about it, and chiefly I love the novel set-up of it all being utilized to its fullest.

If there’s one aspect to this film I will praise nonstop alongside this clever premise, it’s that this has the best child actors I’ve seen in a horror movie in a long time. Most horror movie veterans know by now that there is nothing that sucks the tension out of a scene like bad child actors who can’t play fear, anger, or any of the myriad emotions that should be coursing through their tiny veins at any given moment. This movie never has that issue.

Mason Thames plays the fear, the exhaustion, and the stress of his character Finney Blake with expertise beyond his years. Every moment Thames plays opposite of Ethan Hawke’s “The Grabber” is a gem where I’m feeling disgust for the latter and terror for the former, almost entirely thanks to how compelling Thames is. Hawke’s character is admittedly nothing revolutionary, a masked psychopath with an M.O. out of a dozen F.B.I. casefiles, but his performance makes up for that. It’s the right balance of unhinged and even-tempered that keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering if this is the scene where he explodes with fury, right up until that last scene.

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The show is stolen, however, by Madeleine McGraw, who plays Finney’s sister, the charming and plucky Gwen. She’s so entertaining, and her lines got plenty of laughs in the cinema. She’s also heartbreakingly good at playing a traumatized young girl who is perpetually going through it with a harrowing home life and a mystery about her brother’s disappearance at her heels; she makes the film for me.

In terms of the rest of the film, you get a mixed bag. Sadly, the soundtrack is mostly uninspired up until the last 20-minutes, where it feels like the budget kicked in; that final song really does buoy you with emotion, and I’m a sucker for a good closing track. The set design is all perfectly 70s and feels curated down to the last fabric of the character’s costumes. The film’s pacing is stellar, without any scenes dwelling too long and overstaying their welcome. Everything feels precisely cut and intentional, even if some of those intentions bug me.

Questionable cinematography choices are this movie’s pitfall. One VFX decision had me holding back laughter in the theatre from how silly it looked, but all in all, the effects are far and few between, so I can’t say they broke it for me. While the film grain of 70’s commercial cameras and the inclusion of organic home-video portions make up a lot of the film’s best parts (particularly the intensely executed intro credits), stylistically, the movie kind of breaks it hardest when it embraces this dreary nostalgia too much.

One sequence completely extracted me from the movie. It feels like Scott Derrickson was in the mood to do a coming-of-age film by way of The Shining, and while its enjoyable, it breaks pace with the rest of the movie and sprints away with its distractingly bright tone.

BOTTOMLINE: It isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, with a heavy-handed auteur touch that might be off-putting to some like myself. But no matter how my eyebrows might raise with certain stylistic choices, it never left me bored and had me thoroughly invested in its characters all the way to the finish line. It may not be as great as Derrickson’s previous ghostly fare, but it is still good for yanking out a few genuine scares and some great acting.

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Luis Pomales-Diaz is a freelance writer and lover of fantasy, sci-fi, and of course, horror. When he isn't working on a new article or short story, he can usually be found watching schlocky movies and forgotten television shows.

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‘Pearl’ Review: The Wicked Witch of Ti West

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“Am I the drama?” Pearl asks of herself during a lengthy third-act monologue that will surely go down as a legendary moment in film history. Yes, she is, and that’s exactly why we’re seated for director Ti West’s surprise prequel to X, his hit Texas grindhouse slasher from earlier this year. Starring Mia Goth, who co-wrote with West, Pearl is the origin story of the titular character, who is both the geriatric villain of X and the doe-eyed anti-heroine of her own story set 61 years prior, in 1918. Positioned at the end of WWI during the Spanish flu pandemic, it’s West’s deranged tribute to technicolor films of yesteryear, which expands upon its predecessor’s themes of fate and desire like you’ve never quite seen before. It’s more shocking than frightening, but if The Wizard of Oz in the vein of Lars von Trier piques your interest, you’re in for a treat.

While X’s mantra was “I will not accept a life I do not deserve” Pearl focuses on how and why the murderous elderly woman living in a rural farmhouse seemingly came to accept hers. Pearl spends her days at the beck and call of her strict German mother, resenting her husband for serving in the war overseas and damning her to such an existence. She begrudgingly helps around the farm and cares for her infirm father, whom she pokes and prods with morbid curiosity as if to wonder why he bothers to stick around. In secret, Pearl drapes herself in her mother’s finest clothes and dances, dreaming of a life in the spotlight far away from home – Europe, perhaps. The onset of the Spanish flu only enhances her suffocating isolation in a way we are all too familiar with today. When auditions for a traveling dance troupe come to town, she plans her macabre escape. It’s more of a grisly character study than a straight-up slasher, and it could use a little more tension throughout, but watching Goth transform Pearl from bratty Dorothy into a blood-stained Wicked Witch will leave you transfixed.

For all its stylish delights, Mia Goth is the one who carries Pearl to greatness. As mentioned, she co-wrote the film with West, and having such a direct influence on the trajectory of her character has made a profound impact. Pearl’s charming instability as a sympathetic psychopath with child-like rage bubbling below the surface is immediately evident. Although she cares greatly for her farm animals, she slaughters a goose for her pet gator without blinking and incredulously tells a scarecrow she’s married before simulating sex with it. Displaying both comedic and dramatic range that certainly warrants discussion during awards season, Goth lays it all out on screen. Comparisons have been made to Toni Collette in Hereditary, and hopefully, the powers that be take note and get over their genre bias.

And speaking of that A24 classic, the film’s other standout is Tandi Wright as Pearl’s mother, Ruth. Unafraid to go toe to toe with Goth, her performance culminates in a dinner table monologue that mimics Hereditary to the point of being an homage – with a twist. Fear of wasted youth is generational, as Ruth sobs through the night at her miserable existence, while Pearl looks at her mother in disgust, and in 1979 X’s Maxine looks at elderly Pearl with as much contempt.

These ideas are given levity by the sheer whimsy West’s eye brings to such a grim tale. While known for his slow-burn approach, nothing has changed here, but he maintains focus in Pearl’s meandering world with tight pacing and editing. We’re transported immediately into a bygone era via the film’s opening credits, and the presence of sex and gore only highlights what a unique and strange experience this is. West illustrates Pearl’s journey through bold and bright colors that frame the hope of the outside world, while he enriches the imprisoning farmhouse interior with deep and dark hues. Her appearance, likewise, shifts from an innocent farmgirl to a literal replication of Miss Gulch (aka the Wicked Witch), and returning glances at a decaying pig carcass further symbolizes her transition. This attention to detail does not go unnoticed, and while it’s the farthest West has strayed from typical horror fare, it is an experiment gone right.

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Such a thoughtful and demented background story of an already striking character is a gift. To that end, we have New Zealand’s strict COVID-19 quarantining measures to thank, which allowed West to write Pearl while waiting to shoot X and then film them back to back – it’s his personal Lord of the Rings. We’ve been enlightened as to why Pearl would remain in that decrepit farmhouse all those years later – protecting society from her homicidal tendencies – and even why she hates blondes so much. And finally, in one wild act of absolutely extravagant camp, Goth destroys Timothée Chalamet’s Call Me By Your Name end credits game with an iconic moment of her own. There’s no place like home, but for Pearl, home is hell on earth.

Stay tuned for MaXXXine, the 1980s-set conclusion of Ti West’s trilogy.

 

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Streaming Service Showdown: Shudder vs. Screambox

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Note: Horror Press is neither sponsored by nor promoting any streaming service entity. What follows are unbiased observations of a horror fan and writer who loves to stream horror content.

Today more people are going “unplugged,” opting for streaming services rather than cable. Megaliths HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, and Disney+ are considered the best streaming services and appeal to horror fans by offering titles such as Freaky, American Horror Story, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus 2, respectively.

But lovers of all things horror can find a home in their own scary streaming services. Though there are many options for horror streaming, Shudder and Screambox demand our attention.

Shudder was founded in 2015 and has over one million subscribers. Meanwhile, Screambox has also been around since 2015 but only recently was Screambox acquired by Cinedigm (the same folks who own Bloody Disgusting.) This new ownership is breathing life into this Shudder competitor as Cinedigm announced its plans to reach one million subscribers within three years of acquiring the horror streaming service.

With so many streaming services, a duel of the scary streaming services is in order.

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Horror Press Presents: Shudder Versus Screambox.

How Much Does Shudder or Screambox Cost?

Getting right down to brass tacks, the answer to the question of how much something costs can make or break someone’s decision to sign up for a streaming service. The available prices for Screambox and Shudder are as follows:

Subscription Tiers and Pricing*

*Note: These prices are accurate for US pricing only. Prices in Canada, where applicable, may vary.

Not only does Screambox offer a free version where anyone can view some of their content without logging in, but Screambox is cheaper and offers an annual subscription, saving customers money. Under this yearly option, viewers average $2.99 per month before applicable taxes.

Two points to Screambox for both offering utterly free content and low monthly subscription costs.

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Live Streams

As of this writing, Screambox offers live television through BloodyDisgustingTV. Screambox’s option is comparable to Shudder TV, where Shudder consistently broadcasts live movies. However, Shudder’s live events give them a leg up on the competition.

While they may have some bugs to work out, as live events tend to start a bit dodgy (like when Psycho Goreman aired instead of the first 20 minutes of the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards), the live events allow horror fans to come together and share the experience. One example of this comes from the ever-popular Friday night airing of The Last Drive-In w/ Joe Bob Briggs and his co-host Darcy, the Mail Girl aka Diana Prince, where in addition to a live show, the two hosts interact with tweets from fans. Because this is an invaluable experience that brings the horror community together, Shudder wins this round.

One point to Shudder for offering live streaming events.

Devices Compatible with Screambox and Shudder

Though the edge is slight, Shudder once again has a leg up on the competition as Screambox reportedly cannot be accessed on Xbox or Apple TV. They both so far have been unable to permeate PlayStation TV & Video. However, a workaround does exist to access Shudder on Playstation.

Since Amazon Prime allows customers to subscribe to Shudder through them, any device that supports Amazon Prime will then be able to open Shudder. (Note: this method does come with drawbacks as this route does not offer an annual subscription option, nor does it grant access to Shudder’s live content.) For Screambox, though, no such workaround exists.

One point to Shudder for being accessible on (almost) all devices.

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How Many Screens Can Stream at Once?

With Screambox, you can simultaneously stream on five devices at once. However, the catch is that only five devices can ever be registered to a Screambox account. This means you cannot stream on anything outside the five-device limit.

Shudder, however, only guarantees one screen in use at a time. However, there have been reports of people being able to stream from the same account on three or more devices at once. Since this is not guaranteed, and five is undoubtedly more than three, point for Screambox.

One point to Screambox for allowing simultaneous streaming.

Country Availability

Currently, Shudder is accessible in the following countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States. Meanwhile, Screambox is only available in the United States (for now).

One point to Shudder for being available in six countries.

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Shudder and Screambox’s Exclusive and Original Content

One of the temptations streaming services offer is their unique content, making signing up with the service worthwhile as customers are given access to titles they would not have had otherwise. In this case, both Shudder and Screambox have exclusive content. Screambox’s content appears under the aptly titled “Only on Screambox,” whereas Shudder Exclusives can be found in the Shudder catalog under “Exclusive & Original.”

Shudder boasts well over one hundred titles in this section, with popular hits such as Glorious, The Dark and The Wicked, Mad God, and The Sadness, to name a few. This does not include Shudder’s original hit series such as Creepshow, Cursed Films, or The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula.

The Screambox selection is much more modest, with titles including Welcome to Hell (Bienvenidos al Infierno), Pennywise: The Story of It, and Suicide Forest Village, which was directed by Takashi Shimizu, the director of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) as well as The Grudge (2004).

Although the winner of this section is clear, it is vital to understand Cinedigm’s vision for Screambox. Erick Opeka, the chief strategy officer of Cinedigm, explained: “Despite more than 145,000 horror films listed [on IMDB], less than 5% of the genre is currently available for fans to enjoy in a subscription environment.”

Cinedigm has big things in store for Screambox, but for now, Shudder wins this round.

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One point to Shudder for a tremendous collection of original and exclusive content.

Shudder versus Screambox: Final Tally

Despite Shudder’s long and successful run, the tally was surprisingly close. Screambox offers a better price point, a free ad-supported version, and simultaneous streaming on devices. Meanwhile, Shudder offers services on more devices, in more countries, with live programs and exclusives that create a horror community experience.

Remember that Screambox entered this match as an underdog since it is under recent ownership changes, whereas Shudder has been owned by the already successful AMC Network from launch. It’s worth pondering that while we have an idea of what to expect from Shudder at this point, Screambox, under new ownership, still has the potential to surprise us. It is a streaming service to keep an eye on.

Whether either of these streaming services is for you is up to you and given that they both offer the ability to try them out at no cost, check out the free version of Screambox or sign up for a free trial of Shudder today. Come back and tell us, which is your favorite?

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