“The Black Phone” stars Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, and James Ransone. Released on June 24, 2022, the film is about a boy who can communicate with the past victims of his kidnapper.
The film was directed by Scott Derrickson, who also directed films such as “Hellraiser: Inferno”, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, “Sinister”, and “Doctor Strange”. It is based on the 2004 short story of the same name by Joe Hill. Many parents have constantly warned their kids not to talk to strangers whenever they send them out to the real world on their own. Some of these were smart to obey this crucial rule. Others, not so much, resulting in them being kidnapped or worse. This movie is an example of the latter. Horror director Scott Derrickson has made a name for himself due to his involvement with “Sinister” and recently Marvel’s “Doctor Strange”. After departing from directing the latter’s sequel, Derrickson decided to head back to low-budget horror territory with a creepy adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story. This one has been getting plenty of good word-of-mouth since its debut at Fantastic Fest last September, with people praising its faithfulness to the source material and Hawke’s terrifying performance as the antagonist. This signified that Derrickson and producer Jason Blum might have another hit on their hands, especially since I enjoyed what the former did with “Sinister” and “Doctor Strange”. Now that it’s finally out after a couple of delays, let’s see if this piece of “stranger danger” media is as frightening as it sounds.
The story centers on Finney Shaw (Thames), a young boy living in the suburb of 1978 Denver with his sister Gwen (McGraw) and their abusive and alcoholic father, Terrence (Davies). Not only was Finney constantly harassed at home by his ignorant dad, but also at school by a couple of bullies. Good thing I wasn’t born in that decade. Even worse is that a serial child abductor nicknamed “The Grabber” (Hawke) prowls around the streets kidnapping children and murdering them. After becoming The Grabber’s next victim, Finney wakes up in a small soundproof basement with only a disconnected phone. However, that phone allows Finney to communicate with the murdered victims of The Grabber. Finney must use this knowledge to escape The Grabber’s grasp. Meanwhile, Gwen begins to have psychic visions of children being captured, which she could use to find Finney and bring the psychopath to justice.
From the concept alone, this movie fits in the collection of horror films that combine supernatural scares with their thematic material. Amid its “stranger danger” scenario, the film represents a coming-of-age journey that sees Finney finding the courage to escape with his life. Finney has always been pushed around by the other kids and even his father, leaving others to fight his battles for him, including Gwen and his friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora). So when he is stuck in the Grabber’s basement with nothing but a phone that houses the victims’ souls, Finney is forced to learn to stand up for himself. It’s a tried-and-true tale that inspires its audience to face their fears amid troubling times and, of course, run away from a mask-wearing Ethan Hawke.
Whenever there’s an ambitious story like that, it’s always important for a filmmaker to focus on making its narrative tolerable while providing some frightful and intense sequences into its horror-based concept. Nowadays, most horror movies tend to just throw in plenty of jump scares and one-dimensional characters and let the money roll in. However, some of the other modern horror films managed to put a lot of care into telling a story while delivering a scary good time for its target audience. Fortunately, “The Black Phone” is one of those movies. While it relies more on tension than ghosts popping out of nowhere, it uses that element wisely to provide its frights and limited and thoughtful storytelling.
As someone who hasn’t read Joe Hill’s short story, I enjoyed that the film delivers a compelling and intense scenario reflecting the real-life dangers of child kidnapping. More importantly, it does it without going too over-the-top with its supernatural elements like the other movies from that subgenre. That may sound boring for specific horror fans, but it does show proof that horror can be more than just throwaway projects that give people heart attacks with loud noises. This is due to Scott Derrickson, who brought plenty of confidence in himself regarding his direction and style. Derrickson is always known for providing creepiness into his films’ atmospheric dread, mainly “Sinister”, which was creepy beyond belief. “The Black Phone” doesn’t have the same impact as the 2012 film, but it does have the ominous atmosphere and imagery that I’d expect from the filmmaker. However, my only issue with the story is that the twist was revealed way too early, and the CGI effects were a bit iffy sometimes. Otherwise, there’s some enjoyment to be had in this freaky experience.
Part of this experience comes from the cast, who made a solid effort to deliver some enticing performances. Mason Thames did a good job carrying the film as the main lead. It’s far from incredible, but after seeing him do his best not to be annoying, I could see him having a potential future as a movie star. Madeleine McGraw was also enjoyable in her role as Gwen, thanks to her chuckle-worthy dialogue and charismatic tone. Then you have Ethan Hawke as the movie’s antagonist, The Grabber. Hawke definitely put on a show as the deranged, mask-wearing psychopath who murders innocent children. His recent role in the Disney+ series “Moon Knight” and his performance in “The Black Phone” prove that Hawke can make evil look so good.
But what about the jump scares, someone may ask? Well, I’m happy to say that there was only a couple of jump scares, so you don’t have to worry too much about getting annoyed by constant loud noises. More importantly, almost all of these scenes actually managed to scare me. They may not be something that’ll haunt me in my sleep, but at least I got something out of its played-out trope.
Overall, “The Black Phone” is a frighteningly engaging experience that’ll make people think twice about confronting a stranger. It’s far from a nightmarish masterpiece, but there’s enough effort in its quality and coming-of-age themes to keep me from hanging up too early. Outside of Derrickson’s superhero antics, I would say this is the filmmaker’s best horror film I’ve seen regarding its cast, direction, and tension-filled frights. After surviving the terrible “Firestarter” reboot, it’s nice to see the modern horror genre getting back on its feet with this one. Let’s hope the streak can continue with next month’s “Nope”. Until then, this phone call is worth answering if you enjoy Derrickson’s previous works.