After very publicly exiting Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Scott Derrickson went back to full horror with an adaption of Joe Hill’s short story “The Black Phone”. Reuniting with Ethan Hawke and James Ransone from Sinister, Derrickson delivers with a film that features interesting characters, a tense story, and an overall chilling experience!
Opening in 1978, we see a seemingly idyllic all-American town, but one with a darkness just beneath the surface. The film spends its first act introducing us to the main characters, 13 year old Finney (Mason Thames), his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies).
Even before the main plot gets going, we see that life is harsh for Finney and Gwen as they deal with incredibly violent bullies (whom the school never reprimands or addresses) and a drunk father who occasionally beats them with a belt, which honestly is one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the movie.
So when children start going missing, it seems like just one more thing for everyone to deal with. “The Grabber” (as he’s dubbed by the press) takes a fellow baseball player that Finney played a game with, along with one of his best friends. By the time Finney himself is abducted, it almost seems like the natural progression of how his life has been, and the ultimate culmination of him being bullied.
The Black Phone
Firstly, let’s just take a moment to recognize the fact that this is without a doubt the creepiest and scariest performance Ethan Hawke has ever given in his entire career. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker performance, there’s been this twisted arms race so to speak among actors to see who can “out-crazy” the rest.
This has largely led to downright cartoonish and goofy performances like Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, Michelle Gomez’s Master/Missy in Doctor Who, and even other Jokers like Jared Leto in Suicide Squad and Barry Keoghan in The Batman. It would have been very easy for Ethan Hawke to fall into this trap. Instead of trying to play it creepy or trying to play it to be entertaining, he taps into a much more subtle but absolutely sinister place.
From the moment he kidnaps Finney, you see how quickly he can turn from fun and charming to completely sadistic within seconds. Even his voice changes when he’s taunting Finney about what he wants to do to him and when we hear him talking with other people and his façade of normalcy is still up.
Trapped in a dark basement, knowing that a horrific fate awaits him, Finney’s only lifeline is the titular black phone which hangs upon the wall. While it is disconnected, he is able to speak with the previous kids who suffered terrible fates there and in doing so they are able to provide him with support and information that can help him.
Much like Crimson Peak, this is a movie that puts a spin on supernatural horror where the ghosts may appear frightening but are actually helpful. And the true source of evil is the depraved depths of sadism that normal humans are capable of committing.
To the film’s credit, it handles its very delicate subject matter in a very implicit and implied manner. Finney is well aware of the grisly fate the previous abducted children suffered, and he knows that unless he can escape or be rescued that will ultimately be his fate as well. But the film never comes close to showing anything like that, or even open stating it; leaving everything heavily implied.
There’s been a heavy focus lately on all things nostalgia when it comes to movies/TV. Series like Stranger Things have us all longing for decades past. The Black Phone takes the opposite approach, demonstrating that the late 70s was actually a terrible time to be a child in a neighborhood like this. Rather than using its time setting to glamorize, the infamous “malaise” that the late 70s were associated with looms heavy over the characters and the film itself.
Fans of Sinister will be pleased to see the signature gritty “home movie” look as it utilized in certain scenes, and even some of the ghost effects and legitimately well earned jump scares demonstrate that this is a director who really understands how to frighten an audience!
What did you think of The Black Phone? Let us know in the comments!