The Black Phone is a chilling horror-thriller with a downright creepy performance from Ethan Hawke that (outside a few unique pieces) tells a relatively familiar serial killer story.¬†It's a well-constructed film at nearly every level, with great¬†showings from its¬†kid actors and adult stars alike,¬†atmospheric¬†cinematography, and¬†satisfying jump scares; yet, it falls short in exploring its most intriguing components, notably¬†the titular "black phone" and creepy antagonist "The Grabber" ‚ÄĒ two aspects that¬†could have¬†differentiated¬†the movie from¬†similar¬†"kid trapped in a killer's basement"¬†movie tropes.

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Based on the short story of the same name by writer Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), The Black Phone follows teenage brother and sister, Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw), whose Northwest Denver suburb is tormented by a series of child abductions perpetrated by an unknown serial killer known as The Grabber. Bullied at school and terrorized by his alcoholic father, Finney learns to accept abuse (and physical beatings) as inevitable, even failing to defend his sister when she is assailed by their dad for claiming to experience clairvoyant visions. However, when Finney is taken by The Grabber, he discovers a supernatural connection to the killer's previous victims, one that could provide clues to assist in his escape or could just accelerate the danger he's in.

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Directed by modern horror maestro Scott Derrickson, who previously horrified audiences with The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister (not to mention Doctor Strange), The Black Phone benefits from Derrickson's experience and artistic flourishes, which elevate the movie above standard horror fare. Nevertheless, the setup is stronger in premise than it is in final execution and the filmmaker struggles to expand Hill's short story source material into a full-length movie (even less so a franchise-starter on the level of Sinister). Derrickson supplies entertaining scares, nerve-racking set pieces, and satisfying payoff, but also leaves a lot on the table, failing to develop either The Grabber or The Black Phone's supernatural aspects into anything beyond plot beats that push Finney's journey forward. It's unfortunate, as those aspects and the implied (but barely mentioned) relationship between the two are the movie's most engaging contributions.

Derrickson injects subtle¬†clues¬†that¬†outline The Grabber's psychosis and ritualistic patterns, but the¬†director intentionally avoids¬†defining his antagonist with a notable backstory or clear-cut motivations ‚ÄĒ instead portraying the killer as a truly¬†unhinged, deceptive, and menacing lunatic. Still, in spite of the mask, he's not an emotionless hunter (more Dark Knight Joker than Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers) and Hawke relishes in the role, delivering¬†a disturbing and¬†spirited¬†portrayal that keeps Finney, and by extension the audience, unnerved and unsure of what¬†may happen throughout the events of The Black Phone.

Relative newcomer Thames (For All Mankind) is solid for his part.¬†Exchanges between Finney and The Grabber are brief ‚ÄĒ mostly scene stealing weirdness from Hawke ‚ÄĒ so The Black Phone doesn't¬†supply Thames with particularly rich¬†interactions¬†to showcase his own talents. It's a confusing choice, especially considering that one stage of The Grabber's criminal pattern involves befriending and admiring his victims, a setup that¬†would provide ample room for Hawke and Thames to share scenes and unpack what The Grabber is trying to accomplish, as well as what makes Finney different¬†from the killer's¬†prior abductees. Derrickson provides an in-canon explanation for why many of the pair's encounters are cut short, but it's¬†an underwhelming one. Still,¬†Finney's kid hero path from school punching bag¬†to survivalist is satisfying to follow even if it will leave some viewers wanting more from his¬†confrontations with The Grabber.

That said, while Thames is the primary protagonist, with few meaty interactions between Finney and The Grabber, he's often upstaged by his on-screen sister, who spars with bullies, cops, and her own father in an effort to find her brother. Gwen is the most vivid character in the movie and a noticeable favorite of Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, providing the younger Shaw sibling with many of The Black Phone's biggest laughs, gripping scenes of emotional drama, and even some genuinely kick-ass moments.

Considering the caliber of Derrickson and Cargill's prior collaborations, audiences should be aware that, even though The Black Phone has more than enough creepy moments (and a surprising amount of jump scares) to satisfy scary movie fans, it's more true-crime thriller with a supernatural through-line than an unrelenting horror ride. And nothing in the film compares to the inventive (and petrifying) set pieces that made Derrickson's prior works (Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, especially) iconic. The Grabber is creepy and Hawke pulls out all the stops but it's unlikely that his killer will ever join Hollywood's iconic horror villain pantheon (or even become a best-selling costume at Spirit Halloween).

Black Phone is the rare scary movie that could have benefited from additional runtime and exploration of its numerous ideas,  especially the film's supernatural components. Instead, despite quality parts (especially performances from Hawke, Thames, and McGraw as well as the movie's eerie 1978 setting and atmosphere), Derrickson struggles to build upon Hill's short story in enough significant ways to make the movie version any richer or more terrifying than its 30-page source material. The result is a beautifully shot and well-acted live-action short story, but one that's missing enough connective tissue, fresh ideas, and time spent between its characters to produce a lasting feature film experience.

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The Black Phone releases in theaters June 24. The film is 102 minutes long and is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some drug use.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5 (Good)
Key Release Dates
  • The Black Phone (2022)Release date: Feb 04, 2022
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