Analog-obsessed modern horror maestro Scott Derrickson is back from his brief jaunt in the Marvel universe with The Black Phone. This eerie tale of missing children (spoiler alert: they dead) is adapted from the Joe Hill short shorty of the same name and co-written by frequent collaborators Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill. Working from the same toolbox that made Sinister (2012) such an effectively terrifying experience for so many horror fans, Derrickson and Cargill are a dream team for dead kids, creepy masks, and haunting 8mm film, all of which you get in spades with this supernatural scare package.
Childhood in the 1970’s is an idealized time for filmmakers of a certain age, but The Black Phone takes you behind the curtain and past the white picket fences of suburbia to show you where horror calls home. The children of this story have to suffer through abusive parents, bullies, and a seemingly unstoppable serial killer who has been snatching young boys off the street at an alarming rate. He’s known only as The Grabber and no one has any clue who he might be or where he will strike next. Our lead Finn (Mason Thames) is justifiably scared of this neighborhood boogeyman but he’s forced to choke that fear down after he wakes up locked inside The Grabber‘s soundproof cement basement.
“…dead kids, creepy masks, and haunting 8mm film…”
Played by Ethan Hawke (The Purge), The Grabber is a mysterious character whose face is almost always obscured by masks with cartoonishly creepy grimaces. The lower half of his outlandish getup is interchangeable so he can swap out expressions like The Mayor from A Nightmare Before Christmas. Hawke has spoken publicly about not wanting to play a villain and while he does come across as dangerous you can see that it’s not a comfortable character for him to embody.
Personally, I think he’s his scariest with the mask off but the theatrics and drama kid quality of The Grabber (just like his mask) is a facade. He’s softer and more empathetic as The Grabber (despite choosing masks that would make Lon Chaney tip his hat) but his eyes give away everything. He wants to kill little boys, and he wants to kill them in very specific ways. That cycle is his only weakness, and it’s up to Finn to learn how to exploit it…or else.
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Finn is uniquely qualified to deal with overbearing abusive shitheads. He lives with one at home who beats the snot out of him and his sister when he’s not drinking himself to sleep each night. Learning to conquer your abusers is more or less the theme of the movie. It drops the personal angle of that story toward the end but it’s peppered with fun problem solving and life-or-death moments of suspenseful decision making. Finn uses every available item in his makeshift prison to break out. He’s resourceful, but he’s also got a bit of a supernatural advantage.
Mounted on the wall in his otherwise bare room is *drumroll* a black phone. It’s disconnected and it doesn’t work but somehow it still rings. On the other end? Ghosts! The Grabber‘s previous victims help Finn to escape by sharing everything they tried and the tortures they endured. It’s a great device for relaying info and a perfect gateway for some crazy effective scares. The more I think about the movie, the more I find it to be the one item in the room that really shouldn’t be there but those ghostly conversations are what makes the story so haunting.
Across town, Finn’s sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) has begun an investigation of her own. While Finn is trying to find a way out, she’s trying to find a way in. Gwen is a foul-mouthed whirlwind of a little sister and McGraw steals every scene. She has a bit of a leg up on the police on account of her psychic dreams and slowly but surely she begins to see the pieces of the puzzle come together in her mind. Her visions are shown to us as 8mm footage, a welcome call back to the aesthetic of Sinister. It sounds like a lot of convenient supernatural happenings for one story but in a world where children can “remote-view”, it’s not exactly a stretch to believe that ghosts can communicate with the living. Joe Hill really is his father’s son. But hey, scaring people is the family business, and business is booming.
The Black Phone is a spooky rollercoaster ride that feels as torn from yesterday’s headlines as it does transcribed from a Ouija board. It’s as formulaic as any major studio movie but it’s also one of the most conventionally scary horror movies I’ve seen this year. I didn’t have to exhaust myself trying to figure out what it was trying to say, and it wasn’t a two-hour tone poem that creates an unsettling mood instead of building genuine scares. It eases itself into more comfortable waters toward the end, never truly digging deep into the darkness it teases, but I still jumped in my seat more than once watching this dead-kids-tell-all-tales frightener.
“…a good ole fashioned scary night out at the movies.”
The Black Phone is going to top a lot of year-end lists, and for good reason. It’s stylish, it’s haunting, it’s got a creepy villain portrayed by a respected actor, and it features a handful of performances from kids who came to play. Your appreciation will come down to personal preference on those points, but there’s no denying it’s a good ole fashioned scary night out at the movies.
Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone played as a special screening at the 2022 Overlook Film Festival and will be hitting theatres on June 24. Click HERE to follwo our coverage of the entire festival and let us know if you’re excited to check out this ghostly good time over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.