Audiences have a creepy but crowd-pleasing character-driven story waiting for them when The Black Phone rings.
For the first decade of his career, Scott Derrickson established himself as a directorial force to watch in the niche of genre feature filmmaking, first through The Exorcism of Emily Rose and a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, which were followed immediately by Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil before a brief detour into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange in 2016. But now with his Sinister writing partner C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson has returned to his horror roots with The Black Phone, a feature-length adaptation of the short story by Joe Hill (the son of iconic horror author Stephen King), and despite some turns for the familiar and crowd pleasing in the third act, the film is still a solid effort thanks to assured direction, a well-written character arc for its protagonist and a terrifying turn from Ethan Hawke.
Taking place in suburban Colorado circa 1978, The Black Phone follows Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), a young student intimidated daily by bullies and his abusive, alcoholic father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) also carries her own burden in the form of psychic dreams which her father insists mean nothing, but things are quick to turn complicated for all parties when Finney is captured by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a serial kidnapper and murderer of five children, hoping to make it six.
Finney is trapped alone in a soundproof basement with a lone mattress, and the titular black phone that appears disconnected, but it mysteriously rings when he is alone. Upon answering it for the first time, Finney realizes the phone is a connection to all of The Grabber’s past victims, who offer him guidance through clues on how to escape from his predicament. Meanwhile, Gwen does everything she can on the outside to help discover her brother’s location with the belief that her dreams contain clues about his whereabouts.
Gwen and Finney have a strong bond as siblings, and their endearing dynamic is displayed early on in Derrickson and Cargill’s well-written screenplay. One case comes after an early, albeit tough to watch scene where Finney stands up for Gwen when she is wrongfully punished, after which she tearfully lays her head on his shoulder when he offers it. Gwen returns the favor in a later scene where Finney is tormented by bullies, helping him fend them off to the best of her ability with resourcefulness even when they overwhelm her as well.
But once Finney is in The Grabber’s possession, that’s when Derrickson’s direction shines through in The Black Phone, as an assembly of different elements makes every scene feel uniquely creepy. Examples come during Finney’s phone conversations with The Grabber’s previous victims, which are filmed in long, slow unbroken camera movements that not only allow the drab ominousness of the basement location to set the mood, but also make the appearances of the decayed apparitions Finney is conversing with that much more startling. Another instance comes in the initial one-on-one conversation between The Grabber and Finney in his basement prison, where the use of silence allows for The Grabber’s eerie demeanor and menacing devil mask to crawl under viewers’ skin.
And Ethan Hawke does just that himself in a turn that’s as fresh for him as it is frightening. Even in scenes behind his mask, Hawke does everything he can to make The Grabber’s sinister intentions more than clear with the simplest nuances, whether it’s through a non-verbal tilt of his head while standing in the doorway, his threatening posture when sitting in a chair at the top of the stairs leading to his basement, or a freakish innocence when he responds to Finney’s query about why he’s downstairs while he’s asleep with, ‘I just wanted to watch you.’ On that note, Thames puts in a breakthrough lead performance of his own in giving Finney a hesitant but strong resolve when he’s listening to instructions on the peculiar phone, and his power as a young actor comes through when he stands up for Gwen as aforementioned, and after he breaks down in despair following a failed escape attempt.
And yet, while the subplot that involves Gwen figuring out the full extent of her dreams and what they mean as she goes along her search for Finney is engaging and promises an additional supernatural element to the narrative of The Black Phone, the results unfortunately amount to ideas not unfamiliar to other movies. What’s also worth noting is that considering his introduction, Terrence’s development as Finney and Gwen’s father predominantly takes place off-screen, which feels a little shortchanging and doesn’t make him feel like a genuinely appealing man upon the film’s conclusion, as good as Davies is in his supporting role.
And while this is ultimately subjective, horror die-hards expecting as much gore and disturbing material as Derrickson’s previous work may be left wanting more, because the brutal acts of bloody violence that do take place are sparse and executed with restraint. That’s a true testament to his evolution as a filmmaker, however, and he and Cargill have crafted a solid character-driven story with a dark visual style that captures the tone and feel of the best Stephen King film adaptations.
Audiences will root for Finney as he learns how to stand up for himself while putting together method after method of trying to escape The Grabber, be terrified of Ethan Hawke in his first role as the killer in a horror movie, be pleased by the personality of Gwen and gripped by the unnerving mystery from the film’s start to its finish. It’s at that point where theatergoers will feel more than pleased by what transpired before their eyes, and that’s why for those looking for a new horror film to watch in theaters this weekend, The Black Phone is worth answering.