The Black Phone has plenty of satisfying moments, an engaging story, a powerfully intimidating antagonist, and a hero that is very easy to root for.
Blumhouse Productions has for about a decade now allowed the horror genre to have quite the resurgence, either fresh ideas being brought to life with responsible budgets or franchise revivals that understand what made horror classics iconic in the first place. This thrilling renaissance now continues as the studio once more teams with director “Sinister” Scott Derrickson as he once more teams up with Ethan Hawke to deliver The Black Phone. The pair once more prove themselves to be a match made in hell (which to be clear is a good thing in this horror context).
Based on the 2004 short story of the same name by Joe Hill, the film is set in 1978 Colorado, and it focuses on the Shaw family: siblings Finney and Gwen (Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, respectively), and their alcoholic father Mr. Shaw (Jeremy Davies).
The family find themselves in a time of interpersonal strife following a tragedy that has significantly damaged the relationship between the children and their father, immediately creating an atmosphere of tension and creepiness. Soon enough Finney is kidnapped by the masked villain known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a mysterious figure who has been sighted kidnapping other children around the area. The Grabber imprisons Finney in a basement cell, where Finney must find a way to survive while figuring out the intentions of this terrifying masked figure.
Derrickson’s stripped back direction allows for this deliciously evil slow burn to play out very differently than the standard survival story. Along with co-writer C. Robert Cargill the inclusion of a supernatural edge to their horror story elevates the tension in the atmosphere of the film to an almost palpable degree as it introduces one more unknown element to proceedings.
This supernatural element is found in a disconnected rotary phone in Finney’s cell, with which he finds himself able to communicate with the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, some of whom were kids he knew. Furthermore, Finney’s sister Gwen has psychic dreams that aid her in seeing the Grabber’s actions and her own brother, pushing her to try to find and save her brother on her own.
Derrickson both directs and writes The Black Phone‘s screenplay, so his director’s vision imbued on the screen through and through, bringing him back to his horror roots, of which e squeezes and mines all the nightmarish visions possible with great thrills and intense scares that he pulls off so well, crafting a constant sense of suspense and claustrophobia. These sensibilities are sure to be a delight to horror fans every as it seems Derrickson brings in all the best aspects from his previous directorial efforts, particularly Sinister, as he once more delivers a supernatural period piece.
Derrickson also continues to prove himself a horror master for what he does NOT show the audience in The Black Phone, it is crucial to the story that we observe and experience it through the lens of a child, so we never see any of the Grabber’s abduction, Derrickson instead chooses to follow the children on their home or delivering newspapers, and while we can see the Grabber and his chill-inducing black van, the image quickly fades to black, imposing the inevitability of his success in kidnapping the child on the audience.
This not only is a great storytelling choice that creates a sense of hopelessness, but it helps in crafting an immensely sinister horror monster, that for a child feels more like a force of nature. It’s these unsettling motifs and techniques that Derrickson uses to build tension so effectively throughout the entire film.
Derrickson also uses jump-scares here and there, but never fake ones, he allows the story to engage the audience and will pay it off with real scares, which makes the watching experience so much fun.
It’s in the calls to the dead and visits from The Grabber that we find most of these scares and most intense thrills, but there is a great balance of supernatural and real horror, the latter which we can find in the several escape attempts from Finney, the best one being a sequence that features our protagonist trying to unlock a combination lock, it is one of the most gripping sequences of the entire year so far and perhaps the most frightening from the horror pool of 2022.
A lot what makes this sequence so intense and so effective is the groundwork laid by the film to build up its antagonist, the Grabber, played with devilish glee by the great Ethan in a terrifying yet captivating performance. The Grabber simply a man, but what makes him so intriguing is the power that Derrickson gives him through direction, the vagueness of who he is and his intentions, and the power he exudes in the story as every kid in town knows who he is, the police come across as powerless to catch him, and even more so his signature mask.
From the moment Finney first wakes up in his cell, The Grabber sports several versions of his soon-to-be iconic mask. Sometimes he will be smiling, sometimes frowning, sometimes it may not have a mouth at all. It’s another engaging element of the film as it becomes a sort of puzzle for the audience to piece together.
Hawke brings a chilling new presence with his thrilling physical performance as The Grabber that is bound to become a nightmarish vision that will live on in the annals of horror film history.
The supernatural element of The Black Phone is what unfortunately ends up bringing it down once the film comes to a close. As mentioned before this supernatural element comes in the form of the phone in Finney’s cell, as well as the dreams of his sister Gwen. The two stories converge in the third act but by the end Scott Derrickson’s methodical direction is not reflected in the writing.
There are quite a few undercooked ideas that bring the film down when it comes to the script, it’s hard to tell if this is Derrickson who may not be a potent a storyteller in writing as he is in direction, or if may there were elements of the short story that did not survive the process of adaptation.
The Black Phone has plenty of satisfying moments, an engaging story, a powerfully intimidating antagonist, and a hero that is very easy to root for, it makes for a compelling journey, but it does feel somewhat unsatisfying when it reaches its destination. Plenty of ideas feel undercooked, such as Gwen’s gift to have dreams that expose the truth, particularly about the Grabber, it’s never explained how they work or how they came to be.
Furthermore, the obscurity regarding the Grabber intentions and motives feel too vague to care by the end. Again, why the mystery behind him is what makes him so alluring and scary as we experience Finney’s imprisonment and his escape attempts, but it feels like all that mystery was shrouding nothing as we don’t get any answers of reveal anything more about the Grabber by the end of the film beyond what we knew at the start of the film, creating for what is an absolutely engaging horror experience, but ultimately becomes unclear in its intentions and themes.
It’s hard for any movie to totally stick the landing, but the horror genre in particular proves itself a difficult beast to tame, once more. The scares and intensity are certainly there, but there was just potential for more.
Derrickson’s sure handed yet stripped back direction allows the horror and performances to shine with unrelenting intensity, great thrills and scares as he elevates the somewhat underwhelming writing to once more prove himself a force in the horror genre.
NEXT: Why Ethan Hawke Didn’t Read The Moon Knight Script
About The Black Phone
Finney Shaw is a shy but clever 13-year-old boy who’s being held in a soundproof basement by a sadistic, masked killer. When a disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, he soon discovers that he can hear the voices of the murderer’s previous victims — and they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.
The Black Phone comes to theaters June 24th.
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Renato Vieira. 28.
Film Critic/Screenwriter from London UK
Masters Degree in Film Directing.
EIC of YouTube Channel “Ren Geekness”.