Do you remember what it was like to be a kid? It felt like summer days stretched on forever, and nothing could hurt you. The Black Phone perfectly captures that feeling while also giving the opposite side. it also shows the hugely terrifying and vulnerable side of being a kid. There could be danger lurking around every corner, whether that’s a bully, an abusive family member, or the Grabber. For a movie like The Black Phone to work so well, it takes a massive effort from the creative team and the cast. Luckily, Director/Writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill masterfully adapted the Joe Hill short story into The Black Phone.
After it was originally slated to release in January 2022, Universal decided to push back the film to a June 24th, 2022 release. That move proved that the studio had confidence in the film. Luckily for them, The Black Phone delivers big time. It’s the story of Finney (Mason Thames), who’s the latest in a string of abductions by a serial kidnapper known as The Grabber. Kids fear saying his name, and parents are on the lookout for him. The time before Finney is abducted and we meet Ethan Hawke‘s The Grabber, is just as important as the horror that comes after. It shows that life as a kid doesn’t have to be filled with one of the most original and terrifying horror villains to be scary.
Life Might Be Scarier Than Art
School is scary, life is scary, and family is scary. Life for Finney and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) already has plenty of horrors in it before The Grabber comes along. Their dad (Jeremy Davies) is an abusive alcoholic, and Finney is tortured by bullies at school. It simultaneously gives off those ’70s party vibes with a soundtrack that has “Free Ride” and “Fox on the Run” and then hits you with some somber scenes involving the previous victims of The Grabber.
A lot will be said about Ethan Hawke’s performance in this film, and for good reason. He does a magnificent job of making The Grabber intriguing, intoxicating, and as terrifying as any horror villain comes. Luckily for us, The Black Phone doesn’t bog down into “what made The Grabber”. We get no backstory, no reason for why he wears creepy masks, how he got these masks, the only indication of a life around him is that his brother lives with him. That’s it. It works so much for the better and passes off the burden of the narrative onto Finney and Gwen. While Hawke brings a human element to The Grabber, he’s never passed off as sympathetic.
His character’s demeanor changes scene to scene and it’s really unsettling. One scene he’s kind to Finney, bringing him food, another he’s testing him, trying to get him to play along with his sick game. After Finney lies to him about his name, he changes once again. The more psychotic and murderous side of The Grabber comes out when Finney tries to make an escape, and then finally in the climax of the film. Hawke never goes full bore into one sort of personality of another though. It’s absolutely awesome that each scene has a different mask from The Grabber though. It’s a shame that this is likely the only time we’ll see the character because there is some real potential here.
The Black Phone brings a tremendous amount of heart and soul to the horror genre. That first section of the film gives you plenty of reason to root for Finney. Through flashbacks involving his previous victims, we get a better picture of how The Grabber operates and what he does to his victims. The script from Cargill and Derrickson is very smart. It does some subtle tricks that lull you into a sense of security and then upend your expectations.
Supernatural But Only Slightly
This feels very much like a Stephen King story. That makes complete sense because author Joe HIll is the son of Stephen King. Not to say that it’s a ripoff, but there’s more violence and brutality here than in the average Stephen King story. It’s like a happy balance between modern horror and that classic feel. This is a throwback and it shows off Derrickson’s horror chops. He’s directed supernatural feeling movies like Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Doctor Strange, but this movie never really veers into that territory. You get Gwen and her dreams of what’s happening, but the only really supernatural element is the previous victims of The Grabber helping out Finney through the black phone in his lair.
Derrickson continues his visual styling and feels from his past filmography. The colors and framing of the film give it this dreamy feeling. The cuts are also done where it sort of drifts in and out from scene to scene. If you caught this one on TV it would be a weird one to have on while you’re sleeping. It all adds to the overall aesthetic that The Black Phone is going for.
The only conceit that I can think of is that The Black Phone doesn’t delve into the outside world as much. We get very surface-level interaction between Gwen and Finney, but it doesn’t ever go past that point in their lives. We don’t learn much about their family, their abusive father, or any other part of their lives. Focusing on Finney lessens the luster a bit on Gwen. While she’s performed awesomely by McGraw, she just doesn’t get enough to work with. They could have leaned more into the psychological impact of their father’s abuse and how that affects their lives, but they didn’t.
Ultimately, The Black Phone is a very good to a great horror film in 2022. it doesn’t lean into the psychological elements of Finney and Gwen’s life, but it does give us one of the best new horror villains in The Grabber. Ethan Hawke is utterly terrifying and the masks he wears are going to end up being iconic. The story is a throwback that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to cash in on the current nostalgic horror trends though. A horror flick not giving too much information away about its villain is refreshing and The Black Phone is satisfying through and through.
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