The Black Phone is a psychological thriller marketed as a scary ghost movie in order to convince audiences to go to a theater and see it, and that was the second smartest decision after marketing this as a Universal Pictures release instead of Blumhouse. Ethan Hawke stars as the antagonist of the film; a child kidnapper and murderer known only as The Grabber who abducts children using a black van before locking them in his sound proofed basement for further nefarious acts. Accompanying Hawke, child actors Mason Thames (Finney) and Madeleine McGraw (Gwen) share the screen as less than fortunate siblings and serve as the films primary protagonists who will take us through the story. The Black Phone is directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) who also co-wrote the screenplay, and if I have only one thing to say to this Director it would be “stop using that fucking ‘old film’ look ‘quick cut’ ‘the films burning off the reel’ shit you do, like Sinister when you’re trying to be creepy, it’s getting old.”
Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie in full. It is engaging, well written, tells a compelling story and when something is set up, it pays off and when it’s over you are satiated with the consumption of the film, at least I was. It has both solid mystery and crime elements accompanied by very deliberate and intense moments of supernatural horror that may or may not even be real. There are several scenes in this film that left me disturbed, particularly regarding child abuse and even the very limited, and dare I say appropriate, amount of jump scares didn’t make me like it any less. On top of that, this film literally had me laughing out loud and times and towards the end I will admit, there was a moment where I became your typical American moviegoer and I audibly yelped out loud at the screen. I honestly had no idea until I sat down in the theater and the opening credits started that this was a Blumhouse film either, but unlike the last two years of Blumhouse straight to streaming poop fest that lives on Hulu, this one came out special, like its siblings Get Out and Whiplash. Not the other kind of special.
The film takes place in 1979 in Denver Colorado and starts shortly after the first few children have already gone missing from the suburbs. The plot is not wholly original, and I believe that’s intentional as The Grabber is loosely based on real life serial killers and kidnappers of the 70’s and early 80’s, most notably, John Wayne Gacy. It’s straight forward; neighborhood kids go missing one by one until eventually our main character Finney is abducted by The Grabber and hauled away to an unknown location in an unfinished basement where he will pretty much spend the remainder of the film. The Grabber clearly intends to play a sadistic game with Finney, same as he has with the other young boys which is sure to end in the youth’s death. Finney is left mostly in isolation by The Grabber which leads us to the supernatural element of the plot as Finney begins receiving ghostly calls from a black phone hanging on the basement wall. Calls that attempt to help him escape his demise despite The Grabber informing Finney early on that the phone does not actually work.
Finney’s sister Gwen also moves the story forward in her supporting role as the rough and tumble extremely foul-mouthed younger sister with possible psychic abilities. Seriously, I heard in some press interview that “Ethan Hawke gives a truly transformative performance,” but Madeleine McGraw steals both the show and your heart as she hurls sailor like swears at kid bullies and curses out none other than Jesus Christ himself when he does not answer her prayers. I believe her character is also based on a real-life counterpart who aided police in their investigations into serial killers or abductors back in the 70’s. It’s a perfect counterbalance to Finney in that he spends most of the film isolated to a single location while Gwen is able to roam freely, working with police and others in attempt to locate and free her brother before it’s too late.
This is not to shit on Ethan Hawke though. Hawke is one of those actors you see so infrequently these days that you forget how good he is until you’re watching him on screen. I was not a big fan of Sinister, I thought it was so stupid that I gave the Bagul (Pronounced BAHGOOL and is the demon in the movie) a catchphrase of “You’ve been SINISTED,” because it was just that dumb. But Ethan Hawke was the best part of that movie (Sinister), his performance was solid as the struggling writer, alcoholic, selfish father and in The Black Phone he plays the perfect creepy serial killer and dons a variety of cool creepy masks. We’re not given much on his backstory, it’s hinted at through dialog but at no point is there ever the sit down and talk moment where The Grabber reveals his past to Finney or why he’s even doing this. Clearly The Grabber suffered some type of childhood abuse and trauma himself but it’s all background noise in order to keep the film focused on the matter at hand with Finney.
There’s not much I didn’t like about the film but I’ll throw a few minor criticisms out there just so they’re known. While the child actors did a really great job overall, there are a handful of times where the dialog just falls apart and sounds forced or acted out. It’s more noticeable towards the beginning when the film is mostly focusing on interactions between the school children but then evens out as things move along. There are also a few jump scares in this as well, I personally think jump scares are cheap but if I’m being perfectly honest about it, these were some of the most appropriate ones I’ve seen in a while, they remind me of when one James Wan would throw them into things like the first Insidious, it was done with craft, even if it’s not my cup of tea. This last bit is less of a criticism and more of a warning if you don’t like child violence. Some kids in this movie really go through hell in various ways and it can be quite upsetting. I fucking hate children and even I was like, “Hey man, take it easy on them kids.”
The final act of the film focuses on Finney’s escape from The Grabbers basement after the mysterious phone calls he’s been receiving help him to plan an escape based on all the remnants of The Grabbers previous victims failed attempts. Gwen’s psychic abilities come into play to aide the police and the way the whole thing begins wrapping up reminds me very much the pinnacle of the great 90’s psych thrillers like Se7en, Kiss the Girls, and Resurrection. It’s legitimately exciting, violent, compelling, and really does make you feel the danger that Finney is in, it’s a rare time where I wasn’t absolutely sure that the lead was going to make it out of this situation unharmed or even alive. What a lovely treat to actually feel something other than the need to clap your hands for the lead character as he kicks infinite ass while doing a sick skateboard jump over Thanos.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a compelling psychological thriller with supernatural horror elements and you’re not opposed to a borderline obscene amount of violence towards children then please go see this one. See it in theaters if you can just to show some support. With a budget of $16 million The Black Phone is far from anything you could call an Indie film, especially with Blumpkinhouse backing it but it really is a welcome change from the CGI Schlockbuster’s I’ve been watching lately. It brings me back to a time where it was fine to make a movie that isn’t 3 hours long and mostly just focuses on few characters and the problem they’re trying to solve. OH! And it doesn’t end with a stupid jump scare… I’m looking at you again Mr. Sinister, you fuck. At least you learned something Scott Derrickson, at least you learned.