The Black Phone, 2022.
Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, and James Ransone.
An abducted teenager uses a mysterious phone to communicate with previous victims of his captor.
When one looks back at Ethan Hawke’s career, which spans an impressive four decades, it’s quite obvious that the talented thespian loves dabbling in the indie-movie scene more than mainstream affairs. However, 2022 marks a significant departure from this established trajectory, for two reasons.
Firstly, this year saw Hawke become part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU by playing the primary antagonist of the Disney + TV series Moon Knight. The gifted performer has, during the past, steered clear of lucrative Hollywood franchises, but if recent developments are any indication the chap seems to have had a slight change of heart. Secondly, Hawke is an actor who’s made a career playing ‘the good guy’, but both Moon Knight and The Black Phone sees him embracing his darker side as a performer. Either way, as a fan of Hawke’s work this is certainly is an exciting time to be, that’s for sure.
The Black Phone follows the story of 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), a down-on-his-luck kid from a downtrodden part of town, who gets kidnapped by a child killer called The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Locked inside the murderer’s soundproof basement, the young boy starts to receive mysterious calls through a disconnected black phone from the killer’s previous victims.
After Doctor Strange helmer Scott Derrickson parted ways with Feige & co. due to creative differences, the director was dead set on teaming up with frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill to embark on a project that would better showcase his horror sensibilities. Derrickson who broke into the scene with the criminally underrated 2005 horror-drama The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has over the years, churned out some nifty little genre pieces from time to time, but The Black Phone is undoubtedly his pièce de résistance.
Some of the creative decisions taken by Derrickson make for a truly unique and visceral viewing experience, and nothing embodies that better than those grainy Super 8 flashback sequences featured in the film, which bring to mind the disturbingly hellish snuff videos of 2008’s Sinister. But what’s really praiseworthy is how the same method was effectively employed in two different movies to illicit completely different emotional responses from the audience. True, the overall creep factor is present in both scenarios, but what they are trying to achieve couldn’t be more different from each another.
The performances Derrickson ekes out of his cast, both young and old, is nothing short of amazing, and speaks volumes upon volumes about his skill as a director. And the slice of late 70s Americana he serves us, isn’t a pretty one. Violent high-school encounters, ugly domestic disputes and abuse hurling adolescents are all commonplace. The world crafted by Derrickson feels so immersive and real, that you can almost feel the grime under the fingernails, the dried bloodstains on the curb. Aesthetically, it’s not too dissimilar from David Fincher’s Zodiac.
All of the above, is achieved thanks to the deft camerawork of DOP Brett Jutkiewicz, who also lensed this year’s Scream requel. But going hand in hand with Jutkiewicz’s moody cinematography is the hypnotic score crafted by composer Mark Korven, who previously unnerved audiences with his evocative soundtrack for 2019’s The Lighthouse. Fluctuating ‘tween pulse-pounding nightmare fuel and mellow atmospheric soundscape Korven’s music certainly does some significant heavy lifting when it comes to amplifying the mood of a scene. Powerful stuff indeed.
I must confess I’ve not read Joe Hill’s short story upon which this film is based, but I’m pretty damn sure that Derrickson and Cargill together, have done justice to the source material and then some. The pacing is pitch perfect, giving us the audiences, enough and more time to connect with the story’s characters and understand their motivations and why they do the things they do. Kudos to the writer duo for crafting an exemplary script.
The performances across the board are simply phenomenal with the clear standouts being Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and of course, Ethan Hawke. Thames and McGraw’s relationship, as brother and sister, is simply beautiful to behold and their chemistry is undeniable. There are certain situations in the film which really allow the young actors to flex their acting chops, and they do not disappoint. If either Thames or McGraw turned in half-hearted performances the impact of the movie would have been lessened dramatically. But they never miss a beat, and they never miss a step. Looking forward to great things from both in the near future.
Ah yes, finally we get to Ethan Hawke. The veteran actor is certainly a treat to watch here. He is deliciously diabolical, utterly terrifying but at the same time very human. It’s not over-the-top nor is it understated, it has the right amounts of all the right elements, and that’s what makes it work.
The Black Phone is a mesmerizing supernatural horror-drama that benefits immensely from powerful performances and a downright diabolical turn by Ethan Hawke. It is a refreshing reminder that good storytelling will always trump cheap jump-scares and hollow spectacle any day, when it comes to the horror genre.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.