Director Scott Derrickson has taken a short story written by Joe Hill (son of Steven King) and fleshed out “The Black Phone” into one of the most effective creepy movies in a long time. We often see movies based on short stories that have nothing more to offer and should have remained in short format. But here, the premise that takes place over a couple of pages is expanded into a full character arc for the protagonist.
It’s 1978 in a Colorado suburb. Finney (Mason Thames) and his younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live with their extremely depressed, alcoholic, and abusive father. Finney and Gwen are the perfect support system for each other and are fiercely protective of one another. While Gwen is very opinionated and often hilariously outspoken, Finney is quiet and stoic. He’s often bullied by schoolmates, but they never break his spirit.
The first half of the movie sets up the characters and builds our emotional attachment to Gwen and Finney. Every few months, another pre-teen goes missing. It’s believed they are being abducted by a serial kidnapper that the media has dubbed, The Grabber. (Ethan Hawke) While very little is known about The Grabber, Gwen, who apparently has a touch of the Shine, dreams that he owns a dark-colored van and usually carries black balloons. These details catch the attention of the local police investigating the abductions. It’s not long before Finney becomes the next victim and the movie really finds its groove.
Once Finney is imprisoned in the Grabber’s basement, the film feels like a Haunted Escape Room. One by one, former victims call the dead phone and provide cryptic clues to Finney. Are these helpful ghosts? Are they bitter and vengeful? Some have been dead for over a year and their memory is unreliable. Finney must piece together the clues and try to make the best use of each. It’s a lot of fun to see Finney grow in his determination to survive and utilize his environment to do so. But don’t become too comfortable, as there is a handful of very effective jump scares sprinkled throughout.
The script has just enough twists and turns to keep the viewer unsure as to how things will turn out. It also provides the actors with some great roles that they devour. Ethan Hawke performance is best described as “unsettling.” At the drop of a hat, he jumps between being childish and a tad silly to angry and terrifying. The mask(s) he wears obscure most of his face, but his acting still powers through. Both Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw) excel in their roles and produce the most likeable young characters we’ve seen in a while.
“The Black Phone” is fun, creepy, haunting, and carries a surprising amount of emotional weight. If you’re a fan of supernatural movies and agree it’s been too long since there was a good one, you won’t want to miss this call.
The Black Phone