To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, The Black Phone is a supernatural thriller film directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), from a screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Sinister). Featuring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, and Ethan Hawke. An adaptation of the award-winning short story of the same name, the narrative follows Finney Shaw, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, who is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement. When a disconnected black phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims on the other end.
In 1978 near Denver, Colorado little league pitcher Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) is close to striking out the other team to win the game. Finney looks to the crowd and sees his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) sitting with some other girls cheering him on. With the bases loaded, Finney throws the last pitch and Bruce Yamada (Tristan Pravong) scores a home run, leading his team to victory. As the teams congratulate each other, Bruce praises Finney for his arm letting him know he almost had him.
As the kids head home, Bruce rides his bike around the neighborhood. All the kids wave and the girls smile as he passes by. A black van then pulls out in front of Bruce from the alley stopping him in his tracks and the screen fades to black. As the opening credits roll we can see that Bruce is now a missing person and the town has been overwhelmed with several child abduction cases in the past year.
It’s great to see Scott Derrickson return to lower-budget horror films. He came on board to direct the feature after leaving Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness due to creative differences. This was clearly a labor of love for Derrickson as he set the story in his hometown of Denver, Colorado and the protagonist, Finney, looks very similar to him in his youth. The film is kept at a smooth pace and doesn’t miss a beat once it starts going. Like his other films, I feel that Derrickson leans more toward thrillers as he includes horror imagery and jump scares in his movies, but the focus is more on telling a good story than scaring the audience. There are hints of backstory given to other characters, but gladly the movie isn’t bogged down by exploring them and extending the runtime. Derrickson was also able to reunite with frequent collaborators co-writer C. Robert Cargill and producer Jason Blum. This trinity works well in this genre and it would be great if they would continue working on projects together in the future.
Brett Jutkiewicz (Scream) crushed the cinematography, giving the film a solid ’70s vibe similar to Halloween. The town feels cramped like everybody knows everybody, the sky is always overcast and the kids are beating each other up for no apparent reason other than that they don’t like each other. The picture looks grainy like it was shot on film and the dream sequences look like they came straight out of a grindhouse cinema. Details like this help the world feel more lived-in.
The cast of this movie was amazing. Ethan Hawke was terrifying as “The Grabber.” His voice is raspy as if Hawke was intentionally impersonating Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. Hawke’s face is rarely seen as his character prefers to keep his face covered by a demonic mask or face paint. “The Grabber” is a person who has some kind of personality disorder and childhood trauma, as changes his mask to fit his mood and it upsets him if it is removed. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hawke said he was initially hesitant on playing the villain because he did not want to be remembered for a “scary” performance for the rest of his career, but changed his mind after realizing he was in his 50s. “Villains might be my future.” Interesting choice as he also played the villain Arthur Harrow in the Marvel Disney+ series Moon Knight.
Madeleine McGraw steals the show as Gwen Shaw. She is sweet and endearing, but also fierce and feisty. She is willing to help her brother in a fight even though they are outnumbered and she’s smaller than the bullies. Also, there’s something about hearing children spout out swear words like they’re nothing that elevates the comedy of horrors and thrillers. Gwen has the mouth of a sailor which is contrary to how her brother speaks. Her character is a realist and believes that once “The Grabber” abducts the children they will only be found dead. Gwen is also very spiritual and frequently prays to Jesus for help interpreting her dreams.
Overall, The Black Phone was enjoyable. Not scary per se but can be visually unsettling and eerie for some viewers. The runtime is short and sweet, which is perfect for a short story adaptation. I give The Black Phone a Decent 7.4/10. Derrickson is more concerned with telling a good story than scaring the audience and it shows in the final product. Can’t wait to see what horror/thriller he does next.