TL;DR – While The Black Phone made me deeply uncomfortable for its entire runtime, it also engaged me at every moment. Ethan is terrifying as the unhinged Grabber, and the young cast stepped up to the plate when needed.
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Disclosure – I was invited to a press screening of this film.
Warning – This film depicts scenes of abuse.
The Black Phone Review –
Horror is one of those genres that I occasionally dip my toes in, but not one that I have ever done a deep dive in enough to be a true aficionado. I think part of that is probably a bit of self-care on my part, and the other is that some people get super into Horror, which is sometimes a bit intimidating. That has made me a bit more choosy about which horror films I see, moving more towards suspense than slasher. However, if there is one company that you know will put out a solid horror film, it is Blumhouse, and today’s film is not an exception.
So to set the scene, in 1978, in the North of Denver, a young Finney (Mason Thames) is pitching to Bruce (Tristan Pravong) in a little league game. He scores two strikes, but Bruce hits it for a home run on the final ball. Finn is a bit dejected, but Bruce commends him on his swing, telling him that ‘he almost got him’. Having won the match, Bruce rode high as he went home, right up until a black van pulled out in front of him, and he was never seen again. Sometime later, as Finn and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) walk to school, they see missing photos of Bruce and wonder if he will ever be found as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has taken more kids and no one can seem to stop him.
You are immediately intrigued when you hear that Ethan Hawke will play a child kidnapper and serial murderer because I don’t think I have seen him take a chance like this before. I also had a certain expectation of how the film would go, but I am not sure anything truly prepared me for his performance. I am sure that part of it comes from the design of his modular mask that he wears throughout the film, with his face always obscured in some part. But more than that, there is a physicality to his performance that makes you profoundly uncomfortable and a cadence to his speech that sends a shiver down your spine.
The next strength of the film was the young actors that filled up most of the rest of the cast. Mason Thames has to carry this film more than anyone else; if his performance had dropped, it would not have mattered whatever else they tried to do. But I felt his emotions at every moment, the fear, the anger, the determination, and the hesitancy. He is the driving core of the film, and he steps up to the plate and delivers a knockout. Another strength of the film is Madeleine McGraw, who anchors the story from the outside. On the one hand, she is entertaining but also one of the most determined in the film, and that juxtaposition is a real strength. A big supporting cast of former victims appears, and there is no single weak link among them.
From a story perspective, I was surprised how long it took for Finn to be captured, something that you know will happen before you walk in. However, I think this was the better choice because it took time to build that tension and the visual power of that black van appearing. For example, the hard cut from seeing the van to the opening credits perfectly seated the dread every parent would have about what would happen if their kid went missing. Add to that the offsetting musical score ramping up the tension. You are already in an unsettling mood even before the Grabber says one word of dialogue, making that feeling significantly worse. I think it was a good idea for the film to imply more rather than detail what happens to the victims because Ethan’s vocal performance was already enough on that front. On this, there are these moments that you will find yourself laughing at some of the dialogue, which has been strategically placed throughout the film as a circuit breaker to relieve some tension.
The hook for this film is the titular Black Phone because it is cut from the phone line and should not work. Sitting there in the damp basement more as another form of torture for the kids, a phone to call for escape that you can’t use. But Finn is special, he can hear the phone ringing, and through it, he can listen to the voices of those who came before him. They sort of hand wave this as Finn and Gwen’s mother had special abilities, and they sort of inherited bits of it, which could have been better explained. Still, it was enough to give the basic foundation you needed for the more supernatural elements that appear. It has been a long time since a jump scare truly got me, and even longer since I felt a jump scare had been justified, but we got it here. This vibe combines a set design that supports the narrative and an autumn setting that brings its own gloom to all, creating a feeling of dread.
While I would not say that I enjoyed the film, I was engaged on an emotional level for the whole runtime, but that is not to say that everything came together as well as it could have. To start, you have to kind of push out of your mind the reality that the police probably would have taken a look at the creepy magic guy with the big black truck before the fifth kid got grabbed. Also, while the character of Max (James Ransone) did have a laugh or two, the film was not improved at a narrative level for having him there. Finally, there is a subplot revolving around abuse that is very confronting, and I don’t think the film addressed it as well as it should have.
In the end, do we recommend The Black Phone? I feel a film has hit its mark when it evokes an emotional reaction. I don’t have any kids, but even there, the tension of possibly losing one this way is horrifying, and the film hits that nerve with full force. Ethan’s energy in this film is unnerving, and the young cast steps up and makes the film their own. If you liked The Black Phone, I would also recommend The Invisible Man.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Black Phone
Directed by – Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by – Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Based on – “The Black Phone” by Joe Hill in 20th Century Ghosts
Music by – Mark Korven
Cinematography by – Brett Jutkiewicz
Edited by – Frédéric Thoraval
Production/Distribution Companies – Blumhouse Productions, Crooked Highway & Universal Pictures
Starring – Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal, James Ransone, Rebecca Clarke, Miguel Cazarez Mora, Tristan Pravong, Jacob Moran, Brady Hepner, Banks Repeta, Robert Fortunato, J. Gaven Wilde, Spencer Fitzgerald, Jordan Isaiah White & Brady Ryan
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 16; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R