Pick Up The Black Phone (FANTASTIC) When It Calls Next Year
Title: The Black Phone
First Non-Festival Release: February 4, 2021 (Theatrical Release)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writer: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Joe Hill
Runtime: 102 Minutes
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
A rash of kidnappings has been sweeping the primarily working-class community of North Denver in 1978. Finney (Mason Thames) is cautious and a little scared of the predator known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) which his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) teases him for before consoling him about his missing friends. Not long afterwards Finney is abducted by The Grabber and locked in a spartan basement with only a few necessities and a disconnected black rotary phone. In his terror and shock, Finney is understandably confused when the phone starts ringing and he hears the ghosts of the killer’s previous victims share warnings and advice from the other side.
A clever concept and excellent execution set up The Black Phone to be a terrifying slice of supernatural child abduction horror.
The Black Phone is relentless and uncomfortable from the beginning. From its period setting to its stellar cast and sharp writing, everything is on point here. The Black Phone perfectly melds the supernatural with the realistic and takes its time before getting its protagonist into the hands of the serial killer. Striking a tonal balance between the foreboding and the torturous, The Black Phone even manages to throw out some great comedy from side characters to lighten the mood and provide a buffer from some of the darkness. And the film has no short supply of darkness at hand.
The motivations of the ghost children vary, and it is interesting to see where they land towards the end. Their support no doubt keeps Finney alive much longer than they were able to do for themselves. Little details about Finney pop up as he works to solve the puzzle that is his escape. Other tips and tricks from the ghost children, especially based on their knowledge or abilities, are helpful for Finney in developing his escape plan. I also find the implied explanation for their supernatural assistance to be a clever one that I hope others catch on when watching. There’s a reason why Finney can do this in ways that the others could not. Finney’s character arc of learning to stand up for himself will resonate with younger and older audiences alike and feels earned by the end of the film.
Its characters are what sell the fears in what would typically be another child abduction horror. Particularly, superb acting from Thames, McGraw, and Hawke help achieve this. Thames imbues a feeling of optimism and hope even when he finds himself close to giving up. His inner strength is shown with nuance and a deep understanding of his own motivations. McGraw steals every scene she is in with vulnerability, brashness, determination, and everything in between. One scene shows her reaction to violence that is beyond heart wrenching and will have you squirming in your seat. Last but certainly not least, Hawke’s sinister (pun intended) portrayal of the villain will turn heads and quicken pulses. From his voice to his physicality, Hawke has a way with making creepy phrases sound even more terrifying and seemingly innocuous actions be met with uncertainty.
Some of the visuals are truly shocking. None of the jump scares are cheap here unlike those populated in more mainstream movies. Clever cinematography, boosted by some admittedly high-volume sound, got me time and time again throughout my viewing experience. Small things like the lights turning on whenever the Grabber comes downstairs, are nice subtle signals for the terror that awaits Finney that wouldn’t seem apparent. Typically, lights are an easy way to tell the scary parts are over. With the games the Grabber plays, that’s not true, which makes it a nice, consistent touch of the film.
A great effects department, creeping sound design, and the work from other creative departments help elevate the film to even higher levels. The mask design is terrifying and uniquely dynamic. The Grabber changes his mask throughout the film which adds to his vicious charm and terror. Personally, I want to re-watch and see what cues exist for when certain parts of the mask change and why that happens. Strong set design helps the film capture its unsettling atmosphere. The dark room feels realistic within the scenario while allowing everything to plausibly be within reach of Finney. The Black Phone fully commits to its 70s wardrobe and aesthetic, which makes for a fun bit of nostalgia for audience members familiar with the era, be it through life experience or film consumption.
By the time The Black Phone finished I was shaking. This film is hands down one of the most exciting genre outputs from a major studio since the pandemic began. It is smart, well-crafted, and above-all an incredibly good time. Anchored by two very strong young performers and a writer-director duo that know how to unnerve, The Black Phone cannot help but get under the skin. A fun fact that you should know is that The Black Phone is confirmed to be in the same universe as Sinister. I’m hopeful the creators continue to mine ideas like this because it is absolutely working. A truly scary film that haunts just as much as it shocks, The Black Phone has my full endorsement as the first great film of 2022. It’s simply a well-made horror film that is guaranteed to take audiences by storm next year when it gets its wide release. When it hits theaters, you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t pick up the call to go see it.
Overall Score? 8.5/10