The Black Phone has taken a bit of a winding road to get to theaters. Filmed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Blumhouse production was twice delayed before getting its release today. It’s also worth noting that director Scott Derrickson jumped on this project after leaving the Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness production. Based on a Joe Hill short story of the same, The Black Phone finds frequent collaborators Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), C Robert Cargill, and Ethan Hawke back together under the Blumhouse banner. Regardless of the delays, the promotional material has done a stellar job of drumming up interest for this one. And the critical reception dismisses any concerns about why this supernatural thriller saw delays.
In a small Denver suburb, a child abductor the locals are calling The Grabber has terrorized the community and baffled law enforcement. Finnie and his younger sister, Gwen, navigate the same neighborhood as friends and classmates disappear. When The Grabber makes Finnie his latest victim, the teen wakes up trapped in a basement room with only a mattress and broken black phone on the wall. Somehow the same mysterious phone begins to ring. And when Finnie finally answers the calls, the voices of The Grabber’s past victims speak to him beyond the grave, offering him his only chance to escape.
The Black Phone Mixes Supernatural Horror with a Coming-of-Age Story
Following a chilling opening that channels Sinister, The Black Phone settles into what almost feels like a different movie than what was advertised. This isn’t to suggest that director Scott Derrickson drags Joe Hill’s story or struggles to create scares. Rather The Black Phone, as a story, is every bit a coming-of-age tale as well as a supernatural horror. By and large, the first act focuses on the sensitive, bullied Finnie’s struggle to find his footing at home and school. Derrickson clearly establishes the character arc he intends to explore – Finnie’s reluctance to fight back. No, there’s not much subtly in the story, but it also serves to create some emotional investment immediately in the movie. For nearly 30 minutes or so, The Black Phone teases its central threat with few scares. As compared to Sinister, Derrickson simply doesn’t use relentless tension as much here.
…The Black Phone very quickly becomes a tense, unsettling supernatural thriller.
As such, the volume of scares may fall short of audience expectations. Nonetheless, The Black Phone very quickly becomes a tense, unsettling supernatural thriller. There’s a handful of jump scares executed in a similar fashion to Derrickson’s style from Sinister. They’re loud, sudden jolts that work even if they probably rely a bit too much on ‘loud sounds’. But Derrickson knows how to frame his scenes to maximize a feeling of unease. Moreover, The Black Phone exploits Finnie’s situation itself to heighten tension. The movie’s 70s vibe, including Derrickson’s use of a certain Pink Floyd song in the climax, is excellent craftsmanship. It’s slow out of the gate, but The Black Phone ultimately reaches a very satisfying conclusion.
The Black Phone Features a Chilling Performance from Ethan Hawke
Much of The Black Phone’s horror comes courtesy of Ethan Hawke’s (Sinister, The Purge) performance. Derrickson and co-writer C Robert Cargill – adapting Hill’s source material – don’t give audiences any background on The Grabber. It’s a fine line between ambiguity and simply not fleshing out a character. In addition to The Grabber’s absence from the movie for long periods, The Black Phone offers up nothing on the character, not even little breadcrumbs. Whether this was intentional or not, Hawke invests the villain with compelling balance of eccentric quirks and menace. Anytime he’s on screen, Hawke is inescapable adding an unsettling tone to the movie. Just the image of The Grabber sitting in a chair at the top of a stairway haunts. Of course, Tom Savini’s work on The Grabber’s mask deserves props.
…Hawke invests the villain with compelling balance of eccentric quirks and menace.
As mentioned above, The Black Phone is as much a coming-of-age-story as it is a horror movie. Not surprisingly then, Derrickson leans heavily on his child actors. Both Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, playing sibling Finney and Gwen, allay any concerns about child performers. In particular, McGraw is an absolute highlight, delivering a star-making performance. Derrickson and Cargill’s screenplay ensures McGraw’s ‘Gwen’ has plenty of agency and, in turn, McGraw portrays the character as strong and fiercely loyal. In contrast, Thames’s ‘Finney’ finds himself in that more awkward, uncertain phase of adolescence at the start of the movie. As a result, Thames necessarily gives a more understated performance. But he’s an instantly likable character and Finney’s character arc is extremely satisfying.
The Black Phone Is a Worthy Follow-Up to Derrickson’s Sinister
Maybe The Black Phone doesn’t have quite the volume of expected scares. And yes, Derrickson takes his time putting those scares up on the screen. This isn’t so much a step down from Sinister – just a different approach to the genre. But Ethan Hawke’s performance is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Just the scenario itself is unsettling and Derrickson ratchets up the suspense accordingly. Throw in two strong performances from the movie’s child actors and an effective incorporation of music and The Black Phone ultimately delivers on what it promises.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A-