the black phone
STARRING: ethan hawke, mason thames, madeleine mcgraw, and scott derrickson
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer's previous victims.
The Black Phone is the new film from Scott Derrikson, the director of 2016’s Doctor Strange and initially also its sequel, but due to creative differences he withdrew from that project in January 2020. Instead, alongside co-writer C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson picked up and developed The Black Phone, adapted from a short story of the same name by author Joe Hill. After seeing Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it certainly seems that Derrickson made a good move to step away from the Marvel machine as The Black Phone is a tense and creative horror/thriller with a strong grip on its 70’s setting that derives impressive performances from its lead child actors.
It’s 1978 in Denver, Colorado and The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) haunts the streets. A string of child disappearances have been increasingly distressing the city, with missing child posters lining the streets. Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are siblings that live in the area and both know of kids that have disappeared. Finney is suffering through constant bullying at school but doesn't feel much safer at home. His alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) keeps both Finney and Gwen on tenterhooks, as they try to avoid inevitable outbursts of abuse.
Gwen has something of a burgeoning psychic ability to dream of things that haven’t happened yet or things that have that she has no prior knowledge of. The same kind of talent possessed her late mother; much to the anger and fear of her father, who takes any opportunity to beat it out of Gwen should he get an inkling of it. However, after Finney disappears, Gwen takes it upon herself to do anything she can to find her brother. Meanwhile, Finney awakens in a locked room, furnished with only a disconnected rotary phone that rings with calls from The Grabber’s prior victims.
The Black Phone seems like a simple idea on the face of it, but it’s with clever storytelling that the film becomes so engaging. It shifts from a horror story of child abduction and murder to one of an escape room, a puzzle box that Finney gradually learns to decode. The creativity kicks in with the calls Finney receives from The Grabber's prior victims, who each provide some insight into his behavior or progress they made towards escape before they each met their end.
Ethan Hawke is great as a menacing and unknowable villain, however Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw both shine as Finney and Gwen, and their performances suggest bright careers ahead for them both. Mason's Finney is convincing as a kid given into despair, who finds hope and a spirit of tenacious resistance. Madeline's Gwen is entirely compelling as a little girl with strength of character and fierce in her support for her older brother and she personifies the very heart of the film.
The Black Phone is an exceptionally well crafted horror from director Scott Derrickson, with interesting characters and strong performances giving depth and heart to an otherwise creepy and tense experience