Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Joe Hill
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone
The Black Phone had big shoes to fill. Nearly a decade ago, the team of C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson debuted Sinister. Its terrifying spectacle would strike fear into our hearts, with a scientific study ruling it the “scariest movie of all time.” Joe Hill was publishing his short story “The Black Phone 2022” Now, the stars have aligned and The Black Phone is coming to the big screen with horror masters Derrickson and Cargill adapting Hill’s chilling story, and his version thrillingly exceeds already high expectations.
The first third of the film follows Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) as they navigate suburban tween life in the 1970s. Unfortunately for these siblings, bullies and scraped knees aren’t all that they are. they have to face. In addition to her drunken and sometimes abusive father (played by Jeremy Davies), there’s a kidnapper on the loose in her town, and he’s snatching little kids left and right. It’s not long before Finney finds himself trapped in the basement of the terrifying, mask-wearing Grabber (Ethan Hawke), and Gwen finds herself in a race against time to find her brother before it’s too late.
This story is personal to both Cargill and Derrickson, a fact highlighted not only by the identification of the children’s story, but also through the gritty 1970s scenes that play a more pivotal role than some realize. They can wait. While some viewers of the younger generation may balk at the use of belts and cuffs by parents, many born before 1990 may sag in their chair and recall some not-so-pleasant childhood memories. Was it monstrous? Of course. Was it commonplace? More than “kids these days” will ever know. The Black Phone feels like a time machine with no interest in stereotypical nostalgia. It doesn’t look like it’s from the 70s. It feels like it. There’s sand in there, and it’s not just because of the dirt basement. The authenticity of the backdrop coupled with the honest portrayals of youth at that time make it clear that there is a connection here between the creators and their story. Such authenticity is what makes it so easy to find yourself lost and subsequently terrified by the world you have created.
Because a good chunk of The Black Phone takes place in the aforementioned earthen basement, the movie has to rely on the talents of its cast to keep us intrigued more than other stories. Fortunately, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw were up to the challenge. At the film’s Q&A session at Beyond Fest, Derrickson revealed that they held production for McGraw when scheduling conflicts arose. The studio wanted to reissue, but Derrickson refused. It’s easy to see why the director was so adamant, and it was absolutely the right move. Much attention, and therefore much praise, will rightfully go to Thames’ stellar performance as his character is forced to defend himself against a monster. But McGraw’s contributions to The Black Phone cannot be underestimated. The fierce little sister trope may have become more common lately, but this kid’s comedic timing is impeccable. He switches effortlessly between sarcasm, despair, and fear.
Hawke, who doesn’t normally play villains, has to be moved solely through his eyes as he relies on the painted expressions of the mask his character was wearing at the time. Given his filmography, we always knew what the actor was capable of bringing to the table, but The Black Phone presented new challenges that Hawke rises to meet each time. The guy is terrifying. The playfulness changes to sinister intentions on a dime, and it’s all shown on a guy with a hidden face, a terrifying voice, and soulful, anguished eyes.
Scares here are never cheap. You’ll jump, no doubt, but every ounce of angst is well earned. The supernatural element supports the horror, but it’s the reality of Finney’s situation and Hawke’s haunting Grabber that keeps the tension going throughout the story. Although abuse plays a role in The Black Phone, there is never anything overtly sexual. You’re never in any doubt about the Grabber’s sick impulses, but the film expertly illustrates that you don’t have to show something that explicit to make it real for the audience. It is the threat of what he will do that keeps the story grounded. A more open approach would have cheapened the story.