The Black Phone, 2022.
Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Michael Banks Repeta, Kellan Rhude, J. Gaven Wilde, E. Roger Mitchell, Brady Ryan, Jacob Moran, Jordan Isaiah White, Spencer Fitzgerald, Kristina Arjona, and Tristan Pravong.
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.
Directing/writing duo Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have chosen to set their child kidnapper serial killer thriller The Black Phone (which is based on a short story by Joe Hill) in 1978, and they certainly don’t skimp out on depicting the era in all its problematic elements. Not only are there racial and sexual slurs, but when the children here get into school fights, they fight like savages. The parents of these kids are sometimes more ruthless, whipping their offspring with leather belts in a drunken stupor.
I bring the above up not to blindly praise The Black Phone for its edginess but rather for its commitment to evoking the feel of the 1970s. This is a brutal film where one boy knocking another to the ground and repeatedly punching him in the face is an act that rivals some gruesome images involving the actual child abductor. But underneath this unforgiving exterior is an emotional core involving tight-knit siblings Finney and Gwen (a revelatory debut from Mason Thames, nearly matched in excellence by Madeleine McGraw) consoling one another following the wrath of their widowed alcoholic father (an intimidating Jeremy Davies). Even without an abusive upbringing, it’s easy to see that Finney and Gwen would be friends just as much as they are blood relatives. That connection is also the beating heart of The Black Phone, even if, at a certain point, the material given to Madeleine McGraw is a bit rough and not nearly as compelling as what Finney is enduring.
The choice to spend most of the first act establishing these characters and exploring their lives before properly introducing the killer is an undeniable ingredient to The Black Phone‘s chilling success. The children also openly discuss someone they have labeled The Grabber, an individual seemingly capturing other kids off the street. The filmmakers allow dread and anxiety to settle in while we observe the horrific lives of the siblings, bracing ourselves knowing it’s going to get much more terrifying.
Without spoiling too much, Finney becomes one of the abducted, crossing paths with an unpredictable and sadistic masked creep played by Ethan Hawke (he comes across as a more grounded Pennywise, complete with balloons but sporting a differently colored wardrobe). Thinking back to all the classic horror villain masks, there hasn’t been one in quite a while that’s as unsettling as what The Grabber is wearing; it has an all-white faceless design, tiny horns, and removable sections allowing for moments where man and masked monster strikingly blend further together. The Grabber also doesn’t seem too interested in killing Finney like he did the other kids, announcing his enjoyment in watching and staring, patiently and silently sitting on a chair in a room upstairs with a twisted demeanor.
The titular black phone is also attached to a wall down in the basement where Finney is being held, which comes with a slight supernatural twist. Everyone can hear it ring, but apparently, only Finney and The Grabber can listen to the voices on the other end. By the way, those voices are the souls of the children The Grabber has already murdered. Unbeknownst that Finney is answering and hearing voices, the dead offer advice to escape. However, what’s intriguing is that sometimes the children offering assistance are ones that hated and bullied the loner Finney, primarily giving help now because they want The Grabber to meet his demise.
There’s another supernatural aspect at play involving Gwen, who, even before Finney’s abduction, has been experiencing dreams that turn out to happen in real life. She believes it’s a gift from God, whereas her abusive father insists that it’s nothing like that and that she is nothing like her mother. The script does get crafty, turning this into a crisis of faith regarding God’s existence (the dreams also don’t necessarily have to be delivered by God), but this side plot is underdeveloped and doesn’t click into the grinder picture until the climax. That’s also fine, but it means that Madeleine McGraw has to struggle to make the most of a half-baked idea during two-thirds of the movie.
Still, The Black Phone culminates into a surprisingly emotional climax; it’s the rewarding payoff for spending time with characters before the scares kick in. And once The Black Phone gets there, it only continues to be a nasty blast, building to a rousing finale. Ethan Hawke is expectedly slimy, ghoulish, and terrific, but Mason Thames is an outstanding find that matches the veteran actor every step in this vicious pleasure.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com