Balancing both bleakness and optimism, The Black Phone is a solid thriller from longtime scare-master Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome and handles its sensitive subjects with care. Make no mistake, if you’ve seen the trailers, then you know what the film is about, and it doesn’t shy away from its touchier topics. However, with a degree of dark humor and great acting, this film proves that there is still life to be squeezed out of the masked psychopath genre.
Based on the short story by author Joe Hill, The Black Phone introduces viewers to siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who live with an extremely abusive father and are subject to vicious bullying at school. If that isn’t bad enough, an unidentified creep known as “The Grabber” (a sinister Ethan Hawke with the expected black van) is abducting kids, and it isn’t long before Finney is taken, locked in a basement, and looking for a way to escape. And then the miraculous happens. An unplugged phone begins ringing, and Finney can hear the voices of the grabber’s past victims from beyond the grave, giving him advice about how to fight back.
Such a bleak story calls for bleak visuals, and Derrickson provides the proper aesthetics. There are plenty of clouds and rain, but even when the sun is out, it doesn’t seem to shine as brightly. The jump scares are kept to a minimum, which, in this context, is appropriate. It’s been reported that Derrickson used films like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) for inspiration, and you can feel it by the way he frames some humans as horrific while the ghosts act as frustrated storytellers. The supernatural allies help Finney grow from a class punching bag into an embodiment of hope. Thames sells this role well, and while their characters are unevenly matched his acting is on Hawke’s level in their scenes together. McGraw as Gwen, also gave a great performance, employing fiery language and pluck when called upon. Extracting such good performances is a testament to Derrickson's direction.
Great horror movies often feel real, and in this film, the manner of abduction, Hawke’s terrifying mannerisms, and the many close calls, all feel like a parent’s worst nightmare. The masks, designed by horror guru Tom Savini, could make even the most ghoul-friendly homes lock up on Halloween and the shots of a rough Denver suburb show an area that wouldn't feel safe to begin with. "The Grabber's" basement is well-utilized as the main set piece of the film. In an age where viewers aren't often trusted to stay in one location for too long, The Black Phone wants us to feel trapped like its protagonist and we follow his examinations of the space with attentiveness because the camera-work and performances are so compelling. It would be worth multiple viewings just to go back and see the various features before Finney's ghostly allies help him use them to forge an escape.
I am obligated by the film critic gods to note any issues one might have with the film. The siblings' abusive father was offered a chance to ask for forgiveness at one point, which left a bad taste in my mouth just because it seemed a bit unearned in the allotted time. With so much of the plot centralizing in one room with a single antagonist, one could argue that the subplot was simply not necessary. One scene involving that character is quite upsetting; so be warned–the abuse is more graphic than some may prefer. However, I will acknowledge the fact that the writers were likely differentiating between Finney’s father and “The Grabber,” who reveals sad stories of his own childhood but mentions no sort of reconciliation. Even if the sequence of events feels uneven within the context of the film, I give them credit for sticking to the idea of violence being an endless cycle until it’s broken and the moment may stick better with a second viewing.
The plot is very straightforward and could’ve allowed Hawke a bit more time to shine. Then again, this movie isn’t about him, so I can understand and respect the restraint. My biggest complaint (ironically involving a lack of restraint) is one I've been repeating for months: advertising. The tendency to overshare may be increasing their box office sales, but over time, it starts to wear on the viewers. Wouldn’t it be better for audience members to walk into a thriller without knowing most of the plot? That’s no fault of the filmmakers and there were still some gasps and laughs during my early screening. With The Black Phone, Derrickson still managed to give us a disturbing vision with a miraculous bit of hope.
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