From the very moment I saw the trailer, I wanted to see The Black Phone. Not only does it feature Ethan Hawke, a superb actor, but the premise was intriguing and scary even in the trailer. I hoped the film would blend the psychological and supernatural elements without going overboard with either and the spooky atmosphere that modern horror films seem to lack. I was not disappointed. The blend of horror was perfect, the atmosphere creepy and ominous, and the use of restraint masterful.
The Black Phone is a supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson, written by Derrickson and C.Robert Cargill, produced by Jason Blum, and based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill. In the film, set in Colorado in 1978, five boys go missing in a suburban town. Young baseball pitcher, 13-year-old Finn (Finney) Shaw (Mason Thames), becomes the sixth victim of the serial killer, “The Grabber (Ethan Hawkes), after being knocked unconscious and thrown into a van. Finney is locked in a soundproof basement with a disconnected phone. Finney soon learns that the phone can transmit the voices of the Grabber’s previous victims, who want to help him escape. Meanwhile, his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) experiences psychic dreams, which send her on a quest to find him with the help of their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) and police detective Wright (E.Roger Mitchell).
If I had one keyword for why I liked this film so much, it is restraint. The writers have an almost perfect blend of psychological horror, using the terror of the situation. Most adults over forty were warned as children about being kidnapped and the supernatural elements, the voices of the spirits, and Gwen’s psychic dreams. Never do they go overboard with any of these. While there are jump scares, there is not a lot of gore and blood, and the writers concentrate on the ominous presence of the serial killer, The Grabber, to keep the audience engaged and rooting for Finney. In fact, the film reminds me strongly of The Saw in its restraint and use of psychological horror to keep you guessing about Finney’s fate and to keep your pulse elevated. Also, as a fan of Stephen King, I can see his influence on his son Joe Hill and that influence on this movie. The blend of elements is masterful, and the atmosphere, even from the beginning, is spooky.
Setting the film in 1978 allows the writers to use an old-style phone, which is far scarier than a new modern phone. While younger audiences may not be aware, the film explains quickly that the phone does not work because it is disconnected. Modern phones are never disconnected, only turned off, which would have ruined the premise. So when this phone rings, you know something spooky is up. The Black Phone pares down the special effects to only the most essential, a few shots of spirits and objects moving, like the phone or a soda bottle. For me, stripping down the sets to those essentials is even more terrifying, especially to see a child in that situation. Also, it has the best use of balloons in a scary movie since IT.
The director and writers also do a brilliant job of setting up the atmosphere from the beginning, showing the missing children flyers, the black van, and darkness hovering over the town, over the children in school. They set up key pieces of information right from the start, introducing Gwen’s abilities and showing you the home life of Gwen and Finney. We also are shown Gwen and Finney’s reactions to the kidnappings and their personalities. We need that to be invested in the characters and the story.
The performances are as superb as the story and the writing. Ethan Hawke is downright foreboding and ominous and plays a considerable part in the film’s success. He portrays The Grabber as disturbed and frightening, terrifying more when he is quiet than when he is talking, and every time he is on film, I was on the edge of my seat; the tension was so high. Mason Thames is the center of the film as Finney. He is skilled at portraying fear, bravery, hopelessness, and grit, and he is incredible, especially in the film’s finale. Madeleine McGraw is also quite excellent as Gwen. She portrays Gwen as tough and loving toward her brother, a fighter but also struggles with her father. Her and Finney’s determination as characters is part of what captivated me.
While the film is slow initially, I would not call that a flaw. The filmmakers need the time to introduce the situation and the characters. However, a couple of little elements seemed a bit off to me. First, I did struggle with my disbelief over the police approaching Gwen for help with the kidnappings, despite her dreams. Second, I highly doubt most police would go to a 13-year-old for help, although if they thought she’d been a witness, that might have made more sense. One of the other characters, Max, played by James Ransone, also seemed to be extraneous or, rather, to serve one purpose. While that didn’t detract enjoyment of the film, the character should have been eliminated or put to a more substantial purpose.
If you like supernatural or psychological horror, I highly recommend catching this film. It has a masterful blend of horror and the supernatural. The acting from Ethan Hawke steals the movie, but Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are superb as well. The film doesn’t rely on gore and blood to scare the audience; instead, it relies on fantastic tension, solid pacing, and just the right amount of scary moments to keep you on the edge of your seat. And while I wasn’t terrified the entire time, the film was spooky, The Grabber was ominous, and I was incredibly engaged in the movie.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 phone calls
Official Website: The Black Phone (2022) | Movie Site | In Theaters Friday
The Black Phone
Finney Shaw, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.
THE BLACK PHONE opens in theaters on Friday, June 24, 2022.
ONE-LINER: After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.