The Black Phone (2022) Review!!

Synopsis – After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.

My Take – Before he found worldwide recognition by directing the MCU entry, Doctor Strange (2016), writer-director Scott Derrickson was already a well-known name among horror genre, especially for helming The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Sinister (2013) and the massively underrated Deliver Us From Evil (2014).

Hence, fans were elated when he exited directorial duties on the MCU sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), and decided to return to his roots by adapting a chilling 2014 short story from writer Joe Hill (NOS4R2), while reuniting with his longtime creative partner C. Robert Cargill and Sinister star Ethan Hawke.

And if the trailers weren’t enough of an obvious indication, director Derrickson once again delivers a solid, spooky period chiller that grabs a hold of the audience and never lets up. Striking a fine balance between genre thrills and a moving coming-of-age story, the horror is very well-paced for a 103 minute feature, with stretches that utilize silence and well-crafted spatial layouts to unnerving effect.

Sure, while this isn’t the first film to focus on the plight of abducted youngsters, or indulge in themes like high school bullying, child abuse, and parental violence, but armed with a rewarding depth of dramatic detail, the film manages to offer a new twist on the familiar set up.

Add to that disturbing and the oppressive atmosphere that director Derrickson creates and a killer villain performance from Ethan Hawke, the trio have managed to have yet another satisfying dark hit on their hands.

Set in 1978 in northern Denver, the story follows the 13 year old Finney (Mason Thames), who along with his younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), has been navigating the pre-teen suburban life dealing with bullies, scraped knees and a drunk and sometimes abusive widowed father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Unfortunately, that’s not all they have to deal with, as a bogeyman-like figure has been kidnapping young boys left and right in their town. Some of whom were actually Finney’s friends.

Sadly, it isn’t long before Finney finds himself too trapped in the basement of the terrifying mask-wearing Grabber (Ethan Hawke). While his chances for survival seem immediately slim as the man is bigger and stronger than he is. Help eventually arrives in the form of a disconnected phone in the basement that rings and connects Finney to previous victims, each with a crucial hint on how to escape the terrible fate that might otherwise await him.

Meanwhile, Gwen, who possesses her dead mother’s psychic abilities, begins to piece together clues to find her brother before it’s too late.

With its small-town setting and kids in peril narrative, obvious comparisons can be made to IT and Stranger Things but to director Derrickson’s credit he manages to tell a tale that is equally terrifying. In addition, the film is so engaging, and moves at such a perfect pace, that I was actually shocked when it came to an end.

While it does borrow slightly in certain aspects from other films it still remains its own entity with clever plotting. Continuously unraveling into something you will not see coming which makes it a welcome factor.

On its own, the story itself very complex and gives a certain bit of emotional impact while remaining dire and suspenseful simultaneously. For example the method with which the Grabber toys with Finney in an immersive game called Naughty Boy, that sees him leaving the cellar door open, grasping a belt, hoping he will try to escape, something which parallels Finney’s own father’s relentless beating of him and Gwen.

Here, director Derrickson and co-writer Cargill draw upon scars from their childhood to create the monster that Hawke plays repulsively well. The Grabber is especially scary because we know there are people in the world that are like him, even if they don’t wear terrifying face masks to hide their identities.

Through it all, the film also embraces fantastical horrors outside true crime molds. Every time the phone rings and Finney presses the receiver to his ear, the air grows cold and anxiousness overtakes. A collection of lost souls recall their experiences and aid Finney by dropping clues, all of which expand the dank, moldy basement confines.

The film is alternately thrilling and tender, and the reason it works so well despite these tonal disparities is because of how full its heart is, even when it’s making yours throb painfully in fright. While not knowing the Grabber’s backstory might act as downside to some, an immediate rectification is provided in the form of one of the most satisfying endings of a horror-thriller in recent years.

Without a doubt, Ethan Hawke gives one of his most extreme performances to date and this particular villain will be remembered for quite some time for his gruesome yet comedic insanity. Playfulness shifts to sinister intentions on a dime, and it’s all showcased by a guy with a hidden face, a terrifying voice, and haunted, emotive eyes.

However, it is Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, who carry the film with standout performances as two siblings trying to deal with bullies at school and at home. Thames gives a stellar performance as someone who is forced to stand up for himself in the face of a monster. But McGraw’s contributions to the film cannot be understated. The fierce little sister trope may have become more common of late, but this kid’s comedic timing is impeccable. She effortlessly switches between snark, despair, and fear.

In other roles, James Ransone, Jeremy Davies, Jordan Isaiah White, Jacob Moran, and Brady Hepner are also effective. On the whole, ‘The Black Phone’ is an effective horror thriller that satisfyingly balances supernatural and psychological drama.

Directed – 

Starring – Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone

Rated – R

Run Time – 103 minutes

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