This may sound like a criticism for a film that I like, but The Black Phone should be scarier. A horror flick that plays more like a thriller, this has a terrifying premise, to be sure. Oddly, the movie opts not to go overboard in terms of terror. While that could make for a less satisfying final product in some cases, here it’s not the case. This is so rock-solid in its craftsmanship that even if you’re not cowering in fear, you’re constantly compelled. There’s a ton to like here, even if sheer horror is not really something on the film’s mind.
The Black Phone may be a Joe Hill adaptation, but it really does feel like a Stephen King work. That’s obviously a comparison both have tried to avoid in the past, but Scott Derrickson really does lean in to the King of it all. It meets Stand By Me, with a bit of Panic Room thrown in, isn’t the worst way to describe this flick. Fans of the short story will likely be pleased, but it’s hardly a prerequisite for enjoying his one.
Set in 1970s Denver, the city is dealing with a serial killer known as The Grabber, who is abducting and presumably murdering teenage boys. Thirteen year old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) doesn’t expect to ever encounter The Grabber, as he’s more concerned with his local bullies, even though his tough sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) assists from time to time. When one of Finney’s friends is taken, it hits home, along with Gwen’s ability to have dreams that predict these kidnappings. Mostly, the police are dubious, while the kids’ drunken father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) is far harsher. Then, one day while out and about, Finney encounters a man with a black van. Moments later, he’s been abducted.
Sure enough The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has Finney in his clutches. The shy but tough kid is determined to escape certain death, despite the creep’s off-putting assurances that he’s special and won’t be hurt, but escape seems impossible. The room the sadistic monster has placed him in is soundproof, for one. Then, a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, somehow. When Finney answers, he discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims, all of whom are trying to help make Finney different than the rest. While they help him plan, Gwen tries to have another vision, one that will help her save here brother.
Ethan Hawke, alongside young Madeleine McGraw and Mason Thames, are very solid here. Hawke leans in to just how bizarre and evil the character is, which is a far cry from what he usually plays. Without much in the way of, or really any, backstory, it’s all about the awful vibe he puts forth. Watching Hawke be bad is a pleasure. Mason Thames feels like a real teen, which is clutch, even if he’s a protagonist who never really pops off the screen. Then, there’s Madeleine McGraw, who’s able to curse up a storm and entertain, even though some of her character’s story is less compelling. Supporting players, in addition to Jeremy Davies, include E. Roger Mitchell, Miguel Cazarez Mora, James Ransone, Troy Rudeseal, and more.
Filmmaker Scott Derrickson, along with his co-writer C. Robert Cargill, take the Joe Hill story and make it rather cinematic. There are logic gaps and a sense that certain aspects of the story don’t make sense after the fact, but in the moment it all works. Cargill and Derrickson make The Grabber utterly unsettling, while Gwen’s foul mouth is a really nice touch. They’ve crafted more of a claustrophobic thriller in some ways than straight horror, but as genre fare, it’s very satisfying, regardless. In particular, the visual aesthetic of the time period is represented really well.
The Black Phone is dark, to be sure, but still finds room for some hope, and that, along with the acting, makes it a cut above. The long delay in bringing this one to the big screen, avoiding an at home debut, won’t quite pay Top Gun: Maverick style dividends, but it’s nice to see a studio confident in their product. If you’re looking to get your blood pumping this weekend, The Black Phone is a very good option!