Starring: Ethan Hawke (The Northman), Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davis (Saving Private Ryan), James Ransone (It Chapter Two), E. Roger Mitchell (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
Director: Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange)
Writers: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (Sinister)
Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
Release Date: 22nd June (UK), 24th June (US)
Synopsis: After being abducted by an unsettling man known only as The Grabber, a young boy communes with his captor’s deceased victims through a supernatural phone to try and plot his escape.
Scott Derrickson’s career has veered its way into sci-fi and superheroes on occasion, but his bread and butter will always be horror, and he really shot himself into the big leagues by teaming with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill to make 2012’s grisly supernatural surprise hit Sinister. After that gig helped both Derrickson and Cargill nab the chance to bring Marvel’s Sorceror Supreme to the screen with 2016’s Doctor Strange, the duo were set to return for the sequel Multiverse of Madness until, due to the usual vague industry reason of “creative differences”, they departed the project and the reigns were instead handed to Sam Raimi. However, Derrickson and Cargill wasted no time in getting another project off the ground, instead returning to their horror roots, reuniting with Sinister lead Ethan Hawke, and adapting a short story from Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts anthology into their latest twisted nightmare. The Black Phone in many ways is the true successor to Sinister, even moreso than its underwhelming 2015 sequel, building on those grimy foundations to make another chilling tale of gruesome murders and supernatural mystery. That said, as eerie and well-executed as it is, it’s far from an evolution of the concept.
In case you weren’t aware, Joe Hill is the son of legendary horror novelist Stephen King and, whilst father and son do have their stylistic differences and have both written stories far outside their usual comfort zones, The Black Phone feels very at home within the world of King. It’s got a creepy murderer disguised as a kids’ entertainer, an alcoholic and child-abusing father, kids with unexplained psychic powers, creepy baloons, and more; honestly, the biggest difference between this and most King stories is that it’s set in Colorado instead of Maine. Tropes aside, The Black Phone still does a really effective job of building tension. It takes almost until halfway through the movie before the titular communication device comes into play, but the carefully-paced journey to that premise gives plenty time to shape out our leads, and once the fantastical elements come into play it really starts to shine. Like a lot of King and Hill stories, it doesn’t waste time explaining how or why these paranormal elements exist and instead has fun playing in the sandbox, but it gives enough context on the margins to give a sense of stories beyond the one we’re in.
Once we hit the main stretch of Finney trying to escape The Grabber’s clutches, The Blank Phone just starts having gleefully dark fun. There’s some wonderfully tense and anxiety-inducing moments as he tries and fails to break free, and brutal twists that come in to wrench away any slight feelings of relief. Whilst the film takes its premise fairly seriously, the screenplay has a great underlying sense of wit that prevents it from getting glum, and those moments of comedic relief only make its darkest moments seem that much more shocking. Unfortunately, whilst this is all well and good, it can’t quite escape the most damning King trope of them all: an underwhelming ending. This is especially disappointing as the anticipation for the climax is built up to incredibly well, setting the audience up for a truly thrilling conclusion, but the whole thing is over far too quickly and neither leaves you feeling neither fully satisfied or majorly creeped out. It just sort of…ends, with no real sense of what the previous ninety minutes were ultimately about beyond just being scary. I’m not demanding that The Black Phone have some big Jordan Peele-style message to impart, but I do wish it left me with something more to grasp onto than its admittedly sharp and professional execution.
Featuring not one but two children as your main protagonists is always a dicey move, but The Black Phone honestly has some of the best child performances seen since (and I don’t say this just because of the King comparison) the recent It adaptations. Both Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as siblings Finney and Gwen Shaw are young stars in the making, carrying this heavy movie on their young shoulders with the confidence of their adult peers. Thames especially shines as he spends much of the film by himself talking to muffled voices on the phone, and he alone conveys so much despair and desperation in his torturous situation whilst still feeling genuine; a scene where he finally breaks down after yet another failed escape attempt is especially crushing. McGraw’s performance borders on precocious at times, but she ultimately overcomes it and delivers both one of its most emotionally-wrenching scenes and deliver some of the funniest line deliveries (all I’ll say is “Jesus, what the f*ck?!”).
Ethan Hawke is already having a hell of a 2022 with Moon Knight and The Northman (plus Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel Glass Onion still to come), and his performance as the eerie Grabber here is unlike anything we’ve seen from him. With his face obscured by various masks for most of the runtime, his performance is more reliant on his body language and voice, and with both he creates a character that should stand the test of time and become a staple for anyone looking for an easy but iconic Halloween costume. The character of The Grabber himself is very thinly drawn and his motivations unknown, but that only makes him scarier and the few hints we do get suggest his madness is far from typical. The rest of the supporting cast is a bit more of a mixed bag. Jeremy Davies puts in a decent turn as Thames and McGraw’s troubled father but he does little to overcome being a King stereotype, the detectives played by E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal are interesting but underdeveloped, and whilst fellow Sinister alum James Ransone gives it his all as a coked-out resident trying to solve the Grabber case by himself, he gets far less screen time than he deserves for such a compellingly kooky character.
Whilst Sinister was a contemporary story that used cinema aesthetics from the 60s and 70s to tell its snuff-infused tale, The Black Phone is set firmly in 1978 and regularly reminds you of that fact without turning the setting into its whole identity. It all feels very authentic not just in terms of costumes and iconography, but it also borrows a lot of filmmaking ideas from the time, with an eye than sits somewhere between Brian de Palma and Tobe Hooper. The cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz is simple but effective, and includes a few neat flourishes like slick scene transitions as we move between floors of a house or layers of a dream. Sound also plays a big role as it does in any horror, and whether its the creaking floorboards of The Grabber’s lair or the crackling tone of The Black Phone itself, it all adds to a general unsettling mood. The score by Mark Korven is sadly perfunctory, but that’s more than made up for by the wide array of period soundtrack choices that either compliment or purposefully throw off the mood of a scene; I think this film has now firmly supplanted the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for the title of “most iconic use of ‘Fox on the Run’ by Sweet”.
The Black Phone is a good piece of trashy summer fun and a great return to his pure horror roots for Derrickson, though it ultimately can’t match the suprise and ingenuity of Sinister. It’s a genre he and Cargill clearly excel in, and I hope the pair continue to craft more tales of the macabre, hopefully with something that pushes the boundaries a little more rather than just a solid tribute to ages past. It might not be the kind of movie you have to rush out and see in a theatre, but it certainly plays well in one as most good horrors tend to, and if you’re a big horror fan you should absolutely support it. Beyond that initial run though, I expect The Black Phone to become a staple of midnight movie marathons or being stumbled across by an unexpecting audience on whatever streaming services it ends up on eventually. There’s a part of me that’s still miffed we never got to see Derrickson’s take on Multiverse of Madness, but at the same time I’m glad he’s excelling and having fun making movies like this he clearly has a passion for rather than having to conform to the Marvel machine.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10