The Black Phone (2022)
Never talk to strangers.
Denver, 1978: Young teenager Finney Blake (Mason Thames) is snatched by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a serial killer who has been preying on the local kids for a while now, leaving behind nothing but Missing Person notices and the odd black balloon. Locked in the murderer’s basement and with an unknown but surely ghastly fate waiting for him, Finney has only a disconnected black phone for company as he ponders his predicament. However, while the phone can’t reach the outside world, it can connect Finney with another one — the afterlife, from which the Grabber’s prior victims coach him on how he might best the Grabber and win some payback for all of them …
That’s a hell of a hook and more than enough for the average horror aficionado to give The Black Phone a spin. Add to that the fact that it’s based on a short story by fright-lit champ Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns), and reunites the Sinister (2012) team of writer C. Robert Cargill, director Scott Derrickson, and performers Hawke and James Ransone, and it’s a must-see.
This isn’t a locked room single location dealio, though; while Finney is trying to break out, his family and the cops are trying to find him. Little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is a tough-talking, foul-mouthed little powerhouse, while their father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), is a violent drunk, and mum is out of the picture. It’s clear that, with such a volatile home life, Finney and Gwen are almost wholly reliant on each other and have few illusions about how unfair life can be. Gwen is also psychic, having prophetic or clairvoyant dreams that gradually guide her towards the Grabber’s lair. That’s a bit of a step too far for me in terms of supernatural content — I figure one inexplicable phenomenon is enough unless you’re building a bigger world, but that kind of casual weirdness, plus the period setting, certainly brings some early Stephen King flavor to the proceedings (hard to say if Hill would be happy with that observation, what with his dad casting a long shadow over the entire genre, but it is what it is, and in effect, it’s no bad thing).
Cargill and Derrickson excel at evoking the tough, working-class, retro setting of the story. They both come from pretty rough backgrounds (as do I; I interviewed Derrickson around the time the first trailer dropped, and we talked about that), and their depiction of the society of children, what they get up to when their elders are not around and how they relate to (and beat, and bully, and … ) each other is on point. It’s interesting to me that people from Texas (Cargill), Colorado (Derrickson), and Western Australia (your humble scribe) can have so many comparable experiences. It’s also interesting how many people commenting on social media were taken aback by the casual violence and cruelty of these kids and the brutality of their home environments, but I can only say it rang true to me.
The whole thing is tightly plotted, and it’s engrossing and suspenseful watching Finney try to problem solve his way to freedom, with every avenue explored and setback factored into what happens going forward. That seems like a little thing, but plotting seems to be an afterthought for a lot of screen content at the moment, and it’s a joy to see a work that is so rigorously structured … up to a point.
The thing is — and it’s a little thing, but it bugs me — that The Black Phone has not one but two avenues of largely unmotivated info dumps — the phone itself, where the eerie voices of murdered children can clue our kid in on vital data, and Gwen’s psychic visions. If the plot needs a bit of a hurry-along, we get a phone call or a psychic flash, which precludes the necessity of figuring out another way of getting the information across or moving the plot forward. It’s not a deal breaker — the inexplicable is a massive albeit not essential part of horror as a genre — but a film having two elements that perform this function seems excessive to me.
But, as I said, it’s just a niggle, and you balance that against all the good stuff The Black Phone does, chief among them having late-period Ethan Hawke in a Tom Savini-designed modular demon mask being as creepy as all hell. I genuinely think Hawke is one of the best actors working today, and he’s always in a mood to explore and stretch himself as a performer. I don’t know that anyone will be putting his turn here up alongside his work in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), to pull a recent example out of the air, but his willingness to commit to the bit on a genre piece should not be underestimated. Compare his work in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven (2016), where he pulled together a complex character out of pretty thin writing, and track down his post-Taken dad actioner 24 Hours to Live (2017), one of the best of that ilk.
Here, Hawke is playful and sinister and downright terrifying when he needs to be, but he also communicates the sick vulnerability and neediness of the character (common to many serial killers, it’s worth noting). What could have been a one-note boogeyman bit in other hands, becomes something far more tangible and disturbing.
Derrickson and Cargill famously departed from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and fired up production on this project, and while it’s fun to wonder what might have been had they gotten the Marvel horror movie they wanted to make, I suspect we got the best possible outcome. Those big franchise movies are enjoyable enough, on the whole, and certainly lucrative, but I’d take 10 of these a year over any one of those. The Black Phone is a solid, classical horror flick by a team who love the genre and excel at their craft — what more could you ask for?
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson