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The Black Phone: Superb horror-thriller grabs viewers by the heart


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jun. 23, 2022 - 5:24 PM

The Black Phone: Superb horror-thriller grabs viewers by the heart

It’s possible that “The Black Phone” will be on critics’ lists for the best horror film of the decade. Of course, it’s only 2022.

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Review by Jonathan W. Hickman

Film Details:

Director: Scott Derrickson (see “Doctor Strange,” “Sinister”)

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, and E. Roger Mitchell

Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Available in wide theatrical release.

It’s possible that “The Black Phone” will be on critics’ lists for the best horror film of the decade. Of course, it’s only 2022.

What director Scott Derrickson has done with this efficient, chilling classic frightener is remarkable. At one point during this intense movie, I leaned over to one of my fellow critics and said, “this feels like something from Stephen King (a great adaptation).” He whispered, “you know, it’s written by his son.”

If there is one quibble I have with “The Black Phone,” it is the not too subtle easter egg references to King’s work, namely, to the horror master’s 1986 tome “It.” While genre fans will cheer (or chuckle gleefully) when these moments take place, those visual touches somewhat removed me from the otherwise engaging narrative. “The Black Phone” should stand entirely on its own. And it certainly does.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. It is easy to see “The Black Phone” as a King derivative and reminiscent of other highly regarded films. The plot involving the kidnapping of young children by a disturbed villain known as “the Grabber” will be familiar. However, few films of this ilk have better executed the horror-thriller trope.

The story centers on a small town in the 1970s. Finney (Thames) and his sister Gwen (McGraw) are coping with the loss of their mother. Their long-suffering, working-class father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), turned to drink to deal with his mounting depression.

Finney and Gwen are curiously resilient youngsters. Still, the more sensitive Finney dreams of one day working for NASA. Gwen, the tougher of the two, may have inherited her mother’s gift of second sight. Of course, their father believes that this mystic ability contributed to his wife’s death. His solution is to beat this perceived problem out of the little girl, but she’s a fighter and isn’t having it. You can tell that this pointless violence is taking a toll on the man’s mental stability.

Finney is stalked at school by bullies. And he’s constantly on the run. But Finney’s lucky to have befriended Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), the toughest kid around, who helps keep the bullies away, if only temporarily. As Robin washes the blood off his grizzled knuckles in the school washroom, he imparts a bit of brotherly advice.

Standing up for oneself is a critical theme, and Robin’s words aren’t lost on Finney, who lacks confidence, especially as he sees his father shamefully crawl into a bottle night after night.

Meanwhile, the town is terrorized by a kidnapper preying on local children. Dubbed the Grabber (a chilling Ethan Hawke), this deranged criminal manages to avoid capture. Clues left behind hardly provide authorities, led by the stoic Detective Wright (Mitchell), with a promising lead. But when it is brought to their attention that Gwen only has details they know, the police seek help from a little girl who just might have what folks call “the touch.”

The script’s elements follow a familiar playbook. As anyone who’s seen the trailer already knows, Finney is trapped by the Grabber in a soundproof basement at some point. But just what the man wants is a bizarre mystery. And then there’s this phone hanging on the wall….

When that old rotary telephone rings, Finney discovers that despite it being disconnected, somehow, something from somewhere has its number. I don’t want to spoil anything more than I have, but this otherworldly crude communication device might hold the key to Finney’s salvation or his imminent demise.

Writer C. Robert Cargill working with director Derrickson adapts a short story by Stephen King’s talented son Joe Hill. It’s a twisty and haunting script that remains utterly grounded despite the possible supernatural underpinnings.

One can read the film without believing anything from beyond the grave is reaching out to the boy. Maybe the voices on the other end of the line are just projections from his productive imagination. And it’s the gritty realism that transcends something like “Don’t Breathe” and evokes the harshness of a superbly crafted thriller like “Prisoners.”

Nearly everything about “The Black Phone” is perfectly pitched and realized. The compelling storyline is authentically scary, but the emotional connection to Finney and Gwen’s plight gets under your skin. I found myself moved as this cat and mouse fight for survival played out. One important epiphany may leave viewers in tears.

Performances by the youthful cast led by Thames and McGraw are striking. These are star-making turns. However, Hawke is outstanding here. Having given us an affecting villain recently in Marvel’s “Moon Knight” series, Hawke is an actor capable of playing bad with relish. But this performance is all the more impressive because, for much of it, his face is hidden beneath a series of unusual modular masks.

My hope is that the success of “The Black Phone” won’t necessitate a sequel. It’s a singular film that, despite relying on some of Stephen King’s best devices, convinces the viewers to look beyond artifice and focus on the thematic truth that the best of the genre can deliver.