You know what? This is a solid horror movie.
Taking place in the 70s, the film follows Finn and his sister Gwen, in they neighbourhood where children go missing. When Finn finds himself abducted, his only hope of escape is a disconnected black phone in his cell…
Director Scott Derrickson, who also made Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, went on to direct The Black Phone upon declining Doctor Strange 2. This was due to creative differences with Marvel Studios (Gee, can’t imagine what the director of Doctor Strange would find frustrating about its sequel during pre-production…) and what a blessing it is that he did.
Sinister was a solid movie, often hobbled by that rather silly ending, but The Black Phone is quite exceptional!
Perhaps there was something of a creative release, thanks to Derrickson’s shedding of the Marvel machine, and also Ethan Hawke’s turn as a villain. Indeed, Hawke had reservations of playing a villain at first, and early talks with Derrickson suggested that the role had to be right for him to do it. It certainly seems like Hawke is having a blast here!
The film is quite narrow focused; the kidnapper’s lair and the surrounding town, making it a very personal, relatable story. But things turn for the weirder when Finn (played by Mason Thames) answers a phone while he is imprisoned, a phone that isn’t connected, only to hear voices of the dead speaking to him. His masked captor doesn’t appear to notice this phenomenon.
Meanwhile, Finn’s sister (played by Madeleine McGraw) seems to have a near-psychic connection to the kidnapper’s victims.
First things first: all of the performances here are excellent. Which is important as we have two or more child actors who are vitally important to selling the premise. Thames, and especially McGraw, are bringing really great performances here; from early traumatic scenes with their alcoholic father, to the foreboding later scenes.
So, so often these days, horror films drop any connection or realism from their protagonists, or just have them acting as the plot demands instead of as real people. The Black Phone actually gives these characters agency and purpose, and they react accordingly and not stupidly. Long has it been to watch a horror film and not shout: “What are you doing!? Call the police!”
Ethan Hawke certainly delivers a good performance here, a lot of it is somewhat muddled by the weird masks he wears as The Grabber. Masks with different sections, allowing him to appear in different visages. One wonders if he could have done even better without the masks. He probably could have.
There really isn’t much negative to say about the film. If one were to tear deliberate holes into it, they could say that it was strange that the kidnapper would keep that phone in the cell. Not that he had reason to remove it, he didn’t know it was some supernatural channel to the dead, but it could be used as a weapon against him. Considering the lengths he had gone to trap his victims, it seems like a strange thing to overlook?
Finn’s sister’s powers seem oddly side-lined for the more urgent storyline. However, she is one of the best characters, and delivers some of the best lines in the film! So whether her storyline is lacking or not, she gives much needed gravitas, levity, and integrity to the film.
A really solid horror movie. Not too heavy on the ghouls, strong with character agency and development, good with atmosphere and pacing.