Directed by Scott Derrickson in his first feature film since the Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Doctor Strange in 2016, The Black Phone is finally seeing a theatrical release after a couple years of Covid-related delays and conflicts. Adapted from Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, this movie finds Derrickson returning to his horror filmmaking roots with writing and producing partner C. Robert Cargill. The project also reunites Derrickson and Cargill with the talent of Ethan Hawke, with whom they previously collaborated on in the supernatural thriller Sinister (2012).
Trailers for The Black Phone have been out in the open for more than a year now, so you are likely aware of the general premise. A young boy named Finney (Mason Thames) is kidnapped and taken to the basement of the mysterious, nefarious masked man known simply as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). It would appear that Finney is entirely alone in this void, with no hope of escaping with his life. The only materials at Finney’s disposal in the basement are a mattress, a toilet, and the eponymous “black phone” hung on the wall. This is where the supernatural element of the narrative comes into play, as previous victims of The Grabber communicate with Finney from the afterlife via the black phone, seeking to ensure that he does not meet their same fate.
One issue that I had with the first act of the film is that it took so long to get to the meat of the story that had been promoted heavily in the marketing. I did not set a stopwatch to it, but I would estimate that it was somewhere around the 30-minute mark that Finney’s kidnapping finally took place. In a movie just over 100 minutes in length, that is basically a third of the runtime that has passed before reaching the inciting incident. The tension building up to this moment was effective to a point, but I still maintain that the first half hour of the film could have been paced much more efficiently and kept a better focus on what the audience was there for. Ultimately, I think this film works best in its middle third, in which the atmospheric horror of Finney’s entrapment in the basement is dialed all the way up.
A lot of this tone relies on Ethan Hawke’s performance as The Grabber, which is just as excellent as it is terrifying. For the majority of his time on screen, Hawke is wearing a devilish mask designed by makeup artist Tom Savini, known for his long career of special effects work in the horror genre with credits such as Friday the 13th (1980) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). Hawke’s low, raspy voice and ominous body language — filled with a tautness that feels like it’s going to suddenly release with a vengeance at the slightest change in balance — brilliantly embody this character with everything a villain should be. However, as impactful as the mask is as a physical aspect of The Grabber, there is a part of me that wishes we had the chance to see more of Ethan Hawke’s face for its emotional weight. As one of the greatest screen actors of his generation, I feel like there were moments in The Black Phone that could have been made even more memorable if his face was visible in his performance.
Regarding other performances, young actor Mason Thames as Finney produces a very respectable effort in a demanding protagonist role. The emotional through-line in the story is Finney’s relationship with his sister, Gwen, portrayed with a marvelous courage by Madeleine McGraw. There is a tragic bond to their relationship, as they are living in an abusive household without their late mother. Details about their mother are sparse, but it is revealed that she died of suicide some years earlier. She possessed a psychic dream ability that led to great mental and emotional turmoil. And, it happens that this ability was passed down to her daughter, Gwen. This unique quality of Gwen’s adds another layer of intrigue to the narrative as the community of this Denver suburb searches for the missing Finney. The police are perplexed by Gwen’s knowledge of certain obscure details of their investigation. Of course, it is rather difficult for a 10-year-old girl to explain her psychic abilities to a group of skeptical law enforcement officers, which lends to a fascinating conflict of character dynamics.
Once again, Scott Derrickson is right in his element with this supernatural angle to the story. A follower of the Christian faith, the importance of Derrickson’s spiritual life is a recurring theme in his filmmaking projects. In a 2014 interview with Steven D. Greydanus from the publication Decent Films, Derrickson discussed the characteristics of the horror genre that give it such potential for exploring Christianity:
“For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world. I like the mystery of the genre. It’s a genre that takes the mystery in the world very seriously. There are a lot of voices that are broadcasting that the world is explainable. Corporate America limits the world to consumerism. Science can limit it to the material world. Even religion limits it to a lot of theories that can explain everything. I think we need cinema to break that apart and remind us that we’re not in control, and we don’t understand as much as we think do.”
The Black Phone works best when it plays to Derrickson’s strengths in visual storytelling, atmospheric horror, and spiritual dialogue. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is distracted by a sluggish first act and rushed conclusion that left me sitting in the theater thinking to myself, “Oh, so that’s it?” But, make no mistake — this summer horror flick will find its audience and turn a solid profit thanks to Blumhouse Productions’ tried and true business model.
The Black Phone is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Review by Thomas Manning