Review: The Black Phone Is an Impressive Original Horror Story with Strong Child Actors at its Core
From the mind of Stephen King’s offspring, son Joe Hill, The Black Phone (based on Hill’s short story) concerns a pair of siblings navigating their difficult lives circa 1978. Thirteen-year-old Finney (Mason Thames in his first movie) is tormented at school (by bullies) and at home (by his alcoholic, widowed father, played by Jeremy Davies). Fortunately, one of his school’s resident tough kids decides to become his protector, while Finney stays strong at home thanks to his feisty younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who helps to keep their dad calm and at bay. In the background of their existence, kids are disappearing at an alarming rate around town by someone the police have named The Grabber (not original, but accurate), whom we see driving around town in a black van loaded with black balloons that we find out he uses as part of his abduction process. One day Finney’s protector is the one abducted, leading to Finney's bullies coming at him again for a ferocious beatdown.
And then one fateful day, Finney is the one who is taken by The Grabber (played by a freakishly effective Ethan Hawke), who takes him to a soundproofed basement with almost no furnishings aside from a grungy mattress and black phones attached to the wall, all with cut lines. Finney isn’t sure what his abductor is going to do with him, but he’s pretty sure it’s not good, and while he doesn’t have much reason for hope, it comes to him in unexpected ways.
The Black Phone comes from director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange), who adapted Hill’s story with his writing partner C. Robert Cargill, and together they have fleshed out the original story while leaving the core pretense behind—that Finney begins receiving calls on the black phone in the basement from The Grabber’s previous victims, some of whom can’t even remember their own names but all remember very specific things about their killer. It’s an eerie but highly effective device to not only give Finney clues and advice from beyond the grave, but in a rare twist for horror movies of this variety (with a very grounded, non-supernatural killer at its center), the victims get a voice to convey their own pain and anguish about their demise. At the same time, they give Finney the courage to fight to survive while never forgetting their names.
The other source of hope is Gwen, who has apparently inherited a gift from her late mother that involves having dreams that serve as premonitions or visions of things that have happened. After one of the other boys disappeared, she had a dream that showed him surrounded by black balloons, a detail that the police never revealed. They question her and her father, wondering if there’s a connection, but they actually seem convinced that she has a gift that might help break these kidnappings. Sadly, Gwen is whipped by her father and told never to reveal the contents of her dreams again, if it means the police come to his work. Both of the lead child actors are fantastic, and their language and attitudes felt incredibly authentic to the times.
Much like Finney, we learn tiny bits of information about his situation from both these eerie phone calls and from each visit by The Grabber, who seems somewhat frustrated by something going on upstairs that is delaying whatever it is he intends to do with the boy. I’m fairly certain we never see Hawke’s face completely at any point during the movie. He wears a variety of masks (designed by special effects makeup guru Tom Savini) that cover up all or part of his face, but somehow Hawke uses the different masks to convey different moods, and his skill at expressing various emotions is something I don’t believe lesser actors could have accomplished as effectively. He’s as mesmerizing as he is terrifying, and the film wouldn't work nearly as well without him.
There’s also the curious inclusion of James Ransone as a character called Max, who is something of a true-crime nut, who has just come to town and taken up residence at his brother’s place to figure out these crimes independently, and he’s doing a pretty decent job of it. If only he weren’t so determined to use cocaine and lose his focus, he might have actually completed the task much sooner. His connection to the proceedings is loose, almost to the point of unnecessarily distracting, until we discover he’s more involved than is let on at first. Even if he isn’t, the character feels added to the story by the screenwriters as a way to get Ransone (who has worked with Derrickson before) in this movie somehow. He’s doesn’t necessarily make the movie any better, but I love the actor, so we’ll let it slide.
The Black Phone is a quality scare film, with a few jump scares, yes, but more importantly, it instills in us a sense of sustained dread that is necessary to sell this tale. I found myself losing hope that Finney would ever get out as the film went on (some of the callers don’t always have his best interests at heart), but the way information and clues flow from one scene to the next is impressively organized. Finney is given just enough to survive another day, and it isn’t until the very end that he understands what everything has been leading to. Thames and McGraw are great, both individually, but more so as the emotional core of the movie, while Hawke is the beast trying to rip their souls apart. This is easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen this year.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.