The Black Phone

June 24th, 2022




My initial view of The Black Phone was to first pick at the flaws that it had and wondering if the anticipation for disturbing scares tempered my hopes. It’s a horror movie, to a degree, but what it is above all is a survival tale, with a dash of the supernatural, and an absolutely thrilling final act. If the goals of a movie are to turn the screws, engage, and shock then The Black Phone has hit all the marks. Oddly enough, this was a film that screened as far back in 2021, only to be delayed the proper release due to the pandemic. Because of early hype, I think my hopes may have been up, but what I got was an entirely different, and delightfully unexpected final result. With a mysterious performance from Ethan Hawke and a pair of child actors, Scott Derrickson has crafted a gut wrenching and high tension inducing thriller with The Black Phone.

The setting begins in 1979, in a small Pennsylvania town, ravaged by the Vietnam War, and decimated by unemployment. Buildings look yellow from rust and inactivity. The streets are often empty and depression seeps into the minds of everyone. The hero of the story is young Finney (Mason Thames), who along with his wise-for-her-age little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw)- who just might have a power to see the future- must navigate the drudgery of middle school, and their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who they look after more than he does them. Finney is bullied by other kids, but his ability to stand up for himself is not for a lack of want, but more for a lack of trying. There is a lost innocence in this boy that is sad, where his mother’s passing has forced him to adult when he wants to be a kid, while growing up in a town rampant with mysteriously missing children.

The story around town has practically become an urban legend, a mysterious man in a mask known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), who has been responsible for the string of missing boys, all of them having a connection to the middle school. An interesting twist is that Gwen has told friends about vivid dreams that have details that only she would know. The skill or supernatural ability that Gwen has becomes a window to the truth or it could just be a case of her imagination running wild. Either way, the fear is blanketing the town and when Finney walks home from school alone, he runs into a man in a top hat with black balloons, and is soon taken against his will. It is in his captivity where Finney will need to fight for his life, along with the help of his sister, the spirits of past victims lurking in the dungeon, and an old black phone on the wall, he will do whatever it takes to change his fate.

From a horror standpoint, The Black Phone is less horror and more of a lingering terror, a mystery with a setting surrounded by death. Director Scott Derrickson and co-writer Robert Cargill (based on the short story from Joe HIll) are not stuck on getting the audience to jump with a gotcha or reveal to us body horror as we saw in Crimes of the Future. The direction is certainly Derrickson style, more in the vein of Sinister, and less in the corporate product of Doctor Strange. He makes the Sinister look with the flashbacks and Gwen’s vision, creating that old Super 8 film look. The clothes scream for the timeline and the music- a great orchestral score by Mark Korven- is mixed in with excellent classic rock music selections to weave us in and out of the moments.

The other half is the performances from all involved. I would have liked for more from Ethan Hawke, who brings great presence, and a strong production as the demented mask wearing Grabber. He’s scary but the mask is doing most of the heavy lifting and although I always love Hawke, the praise belongs to young Mason Thames for his stellar performance. His work drives it through, with his ability to remain calm in terror, and easily portray his terrifying reality in his fearful eyes. Without Thames, The Black Phone would have been an obvious miss.

At the midway mark the audience may be begging for something more, a missing mix of terror that justifies your weekend at the movies, but that comes through in the final act. The name of the game is patience and that’s what Derrickson has created. He sets the tone in an isolated basement with an ugly bed, a man with a terrifying mask that keeps you up at night; It’s dare I say equal to the Jason Voorhees hockey mask as far as I’m concerned. It’s that build of terror, the unknown of what’s behind a door, or what a man is capable when in danger. That’s the true terror that comes forward in The Black Phone. It’s mysterious, sweat inducing, and a movie that keeps you frightened of the people that could be in your neighborhood. We witness a boy grow up fast in a frightening fashion and by the end you can’t help but realize that The Black Phone is exactly the movie that leaves you feeling scared. It’s all too real but you won’t be able to hang up.



Written by: Leo Brady

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