The Black Phone creeped me out like no other movie since IT: Chapter One. Director Scott Derrickson has made several really effective horror films, including Deliver Us From Evil and Sinister. He's outdone himself this time, bringing us a tale that starts rattling your nerves within the first few minutes and never stops until the end credits begin to roll. Filled with twists that both surprise and add depth, this easily ranks as one of 2022's top works in the genre.
Set in the 1970s, the story revolves around Finney (Mason Thames), a frequently bullied 13-year-old boy who lives with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) and their abusive, alcoholic widower father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Several local kids have been abducted by a perpetrator dubbed “the Grabber,” creating a sense of nervousness that permeates the whole town. Walking home one day, Finney unknowingly crosses paths with the Grabber (Ethan Hawke). He's sprayed with something to knock him out and thrown into the back of a van.
When he wakes up, Finney finds himself locked in a dingy soundproof basement. An unpleasant fate would seem to await. Then a disconnected black telephone on the wall mysteriously rings, and that's all I'm going to say about that. Meanwhile, Gwen begins having dreams about her missing brother. She has previously had prescient dreams, so there's a possibility of a clue residing in there.
Child abduction is an inherently terrifying thought. The Black Phone, based on a short story by author Joe Hill, takes it seriously without ever becoming tawdry or exploitative. The otherworldly elements – Gwen's dreams, that phone – help keep one foot in the world of fantasy. In other words, the film is realistic enough to be scary, yet not so realistic as to be upsetting. At the center is a truly disturbing monster. The Grabber always has a menacing mask covering his face. It isn't like Jason Voorhees' hockey mask, which was kind of a gimmick, it's a tool designed to intimidate his young victims. Hawke was the perfect choice to play the character. He makes offbeat choices, yet grounds them in authenticity. Here, the actor provides the villain with a distinct, off-kilter physicality and vocal pattern that implies a deeply psychopathic nature. The Grabber is literally nightmare-inducing.
Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill are shrewd enough to know that horror movies need protagonists who are just as memorable as the antagonist. To that end, they have cast Finney and Gwen perfectly. Mason Thames does not give a “child performance.” He creates a boy who feels like an actual kid you might know from your own neighborhood. In that basement, he makes Finney's fear palpable, simultaneously showing how it triggers an important survival instinct. The work is so natural that you easily buy into the movie's central scenario. Madeleine McGraw is just as good. Early on, there's a scene where Terrence beats Gwen with a belt. McGraw's crying, hysterical reaction is so honest that it infuses the moment with great power.
The Black Phone has a plot that puts several compelling spins on its premise. More than once, I was pleasantly surprised by a new factor the film added in. The less you know, the better, but it's safe to say that Finney finds a couple ways he might be able to fight back or escape. Refusing to let him be a passive victim leads to scenes of great suspense. A bit involving a padlock is genuinely nail-biting, as is an attempt to knock out a hole in a wall. Finney takes logical steps in his efforts to survive, ensuring that you tense up and hold your breath on a regular basis, hoping he will be able to get away from the Grabber.
Excellent, gritty cinematography from Brett Jutkiewicz (Ready or Not) helps set an appropriate mood, and Derrickson paces the movie perfectly. The 102-minute running time flies right by. The Black Phone is scary, yet also smart. Too many characters in horror movies are dumb, and the villains are invincible. Giving us intelligent heroes and a bad guy who's not immune to counterattack allows the story to deliver maximum chills.
out of four
The Black Phone is rated R for violence, bloody images, language, and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.