Justin Lockwood says The Black Phone delivers frightful scares, but its emotional heft makes it truly special.
We’ve been clamoring for The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson and adapted from a story by Joe Hill. It was delayed several times following its original winter release date earlier this year. The film has a terrific premise: Finny, a young pre-teen, must escape the clutches of a child predator with the supernatural aid of his previous victims. It has a solid genre pedigree, with Derrickson reuniting with Sinister (2012) star Ethan Hawke. Derrickson co-wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill. The film is an emotionally rewarding experience with stellar performances from the entire cast.
The Black Phone is well worth the wait, perhaps not for the reasons you might expect. I found Sinister quite scary if a bit cheesy—Derrickson sure does love his jump scares—but this movie is ultimately less concerned with chills and thrills. It caters instead to its characters and an emotional payoff. There is undoubtedly horror to spare, but the heart and soul of the film are what I’ll remember the most.
Mason Thames is terrific as Finny and appears in virtually every scene. His clairvoyant sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is equally strong and quite funny sometimes. The film is exceedingly well cast, from its young performers to Jeremy Davies as Terrence, Finny and Gwen’s abusive father, and Ethan Hawke as the deeply creepy and disturbingly lascivious “Grabber.” Watching Hawke sit, shirt open, with a belt for poor Finny is exquisitely disturbing and very scary.
The Black Phone is set north of Denver in the late 1970s. After a cold open setting up the disappearance of the Grabber’s latest victim, we’re introduced to Finny, a sweet boy who’s relentlessly bullied at school and threatened by his drunken father at home. His only solace comes from his sister Gwen and friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who insist, “one of these days, you’re going to have to stand up for yourself.” Poor Gwen seems to get the worst of their father’s abuse: in a terrible sequence, he hits her with a belt for having cooperated with the police regarding her premonitory dreams about the Grabber.
When Finny is viciously kidnapped by the Grabber, a ghoulish man with black balloons touting magic tricks, he finds himself confined to a dark, soundproof basement. Simultaneously, Gwen hopes her dreams will give her clues about her brother’s whereabouts. The disconnected black telephone on the wall above Finny’s bare mattress begins to ring, with the Grabber’s many victims advising how he might escape.
The Grabber’s appearances are always in a demonic mask and utilized to maximum effect. However, the movie belongs to the kids: Thames, McGraw, and all the young victims, including Mora and Jacob Moran as Billy, the Paperboy. Each young performer is believable and likable. They make the audience unwaveringly invested in the story. The Black Phone is a frightening tale that delivers scares, but the emotional heft makes it truly special.
The Black Phone premiered at the Tribeca Festival on June 19, 2022. It opens in wide release theatrically on Friday, June 24.