The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson, with screenplay by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, is based on a short story by Joe Hill. The film follows 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) trapped in a serial killer’s soundproof basement when he receives phone calls on a disconnected black phone on the wall from the killer’s previous victims. Though scares are in short supply, there is plenty of suspense and tension. The Black Phone is creepy, and The Grabber will make you shrink back in your seat every time he shows up.
Finney Has It Rough
The film starts at an innocuous baseball game. Finney unsuccessfully tries to strike out the opposing team’s batter, Bruce (Tristan Pravong). After the match, Bruce compliments Finney’s skills and drops some foreshadowing. Later, while Bruce rides his bike, a black van comes on screen, and the lighting dims. Everything becomes shadows. Scott Derrickson makes it clear this van is the problem. Bruce vanishes, and the kids dub the child abductor “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke).
Finney’s home life is not so pleasant. His alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), abuses him and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). So they are constantly walking on eggshells to avoid their dad’s wrath. School is not much better because classmates bully Finney. One friend, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Moira), defends Finney and has no issue fighting. Robin tells Finn he needs to fight, but Finn does not like violence, likely stemming from the abuse he suffers at home. He does not want to see or hear about it, even if the person harmed is one of his bullies.
Alarming, But More Thriller Less Horror
The Black Phone is a coming-of-age thriller by way of an eerie serial killer. There are horror moments, but for me, serial killers are thrillers, especially as there is little bloodshed in the movie. Suspense and sadness as the previous victims call Finney to warn him about The Grabber is palpable. Plus, there is tension and uncertainty if Finney will survive, despite his attempts and the cops, sister, and even his abusive father searching for him.
The only parts that scared me a bit were the jump scares because of the sound and sudden image. Jump scares are effective but feel like a cheap tactic and unnecessary in The Black Phone. I prefer scares that rely on tension, imagery, and chilling music. There is enough of the former two here with Finney, The Grabber, and The Grabber’s nightmarish masks. Each time The Grabber is on screen is a “yikes” emoji moment.
Knockout Performances That Put You On Edge
The film would be nowhere near as good as it is without the performances of Mason Thames and Ethan Hawke. Mason Thames plays Finney to a tee with shyness but a desire to be more outgoing. Once kidnapped, Mason’s acting shines because Finney displays an outer calmness in the face of The Grabber’s unhinged behavior. Finney may have an aversion to violence, but in crucial moments, Mason’s expression shows Finney’s strength, even if Finney does not believe it.
Ethan Hawke needs more villain roles. I can only recall one other villain role Ethan Hawke played, Taking Lives opposite Angelina Jolie. Another serial killer, but one that blended in with people around him. Here, Ethan Hawke plays an off-putting character, the kind that makes you take an unconscious step back. But you also know this is not the person you want to show fear or give any ground to because they will pounce. Ethan Hawke’s The Grabber voice and those damn balloons feel like real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Madeleine McGraw gives some light relief moments given the number of swears she drops. Her argument with the cops is priceless. Though sometimes, her character seems too over the top one moment and too subdued the next. But she has talent. There is an interaction with her father where she asks him a question, and when he freezes, she leans away, her body shifting to red alert. That is an accurate portrayal of a child fearing a violent outburst. Jeremy Davies plays the haunted, alcoholic father to a tee.
The Black Phone sends shivers down your spine. A film like this can only be as good as the villain and the character we follow on this journey. Thanks to Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames, The Black Phone delivers max creepiness, and The Grabber is a welcome addition to horror movie icons. Yes, I said the movie is not horror, but The Grabber is horrifying. Thank you Ethan Hawke for such a terrifying character.