The Black Phone Reviews: When I was 13 years old, I watched a slideshow of violence and gore in Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister,” and it was the first movie that made me tremble in the dark and clench my fingers on the bedsheets. It still makes me shiver after ten years and the addition of innumerable horror films to my watch list.
Ethan Hawke as The Grabber
Mason Thames as Finney Shaw
Madeleine McGraw as Gwen Shaw
Jeremy Davies as Mr. Shaw
James Ransone as Max
Michael Banks Repeta as Griffin
Spencer Fitzgerald as Buzz
Writer (based on the short story by)
I was struck with eager dread when I learned that Derrickson, co-writer Robert Cargill, and star Ethan Hawke would all be reuniting for “The Black Phone.” The effects of Derrickson’s actions are what bind his victims. Whereas “Sinister” had its victims entangled in a web that guaranteed their death, “The Black Phone” weaves a thread of survival amongst its victims.
The Black Phone, based on the short novel of the same name by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, tells the thrilling story of The Grabber, a child killer who kidnaps teenage boys in broad daylight and never lets them see them again. The Grabber’s former victims start calling Finney (Mason Thames), the next captive, through a disconnected landline when he is being held in a soundproof basement.
The Black Phone Reviews
The movie has a retro aesthetic that calls to mind old images and the time of striped baby t-shirts, flared trousers, and The Ramones. The screen is flooded with warm browns and oranges, film grain, and filtered light. But the horror of Derrickson has tainted this picture-perfect suburb of the 1970s.
The vibrant blood and the neon of the police lights are the only deviations from the otherwise monotone color scheme, making these moments all the more startling. Rust and blood are used as paintbrush strokes to create an evidence mural of unrestrained violence on the basement’s worn concrete walls.
A piece of bassy, powerful music that at times seems like you are hearing it from underground in the Grabber’s cellar replaces the joyful ’70s soundtrack and resonates in your ribs and eardrums. A vision of bloody knees and a stack of missing people posters is intercut with a nostalgic B-roll of the idyllic everyday activities of suburban youth—popsicles, baseball games, and sunny avenues—during the opening credits of the movie.
This contrast of poise and composure in the foreground and violence in the background is not just stylistically interesting but also thematic. After battling aggressive bullying at school, shy Finney and his vivacious sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) return home so they won’t have to be raised by their controlling alcoholic father. When Finney is left to go home alone while his sister stays with a friend, the phrase “I’ll look after Dad” starts to appear frequently in the discussion.
While school personnel is missing during adolescent fights, the son looks after his father and siblings, who nurture each other, children defend one another from bullies, Gwen, who has clairvoyant skills, leads the police investigation, and past victims speak with Finney while he is in the hands of a killer. “The Black Phone” is more than just a straightforward story thanks to the universality of a child-to-child support system in the absence of trustworthy adults.
Derrickson and Cargill carefully consider abuse cycles, trauma, and the link between young people as they build a deep, multi-layered narrative that uses elements of horror and supports them. The trait of Hawke’s Grabber is personality reversal. His pretended cheeriness displays active movements and a shrill voice. It is unsettlingly infantile, tying itself to the idea of age regression behavior caused by trauma, and contrasts with the vulgarity and sophistication with which the children speak. The hilarious harlequin act, however, is short-lived, leaving Finney defenseless against a complete transformation: a deep, husky voice and an unyielding, hostile temperament.
These are the times when Hawke shows off his acting prowess and adaptability. His villainy is erratic and unstable. He skillfully walks the line between vivacious youth and immorality. His acting relies on body language and the expressive flickers of his eyes because he can change on a dime and wear a mask for most of the movie. Although he was apprehensive about playing a villain, Hawke succeeds admirably, and the passionate dramatic acting that helped make him famous also works exceptionally well in a conflictual part.
The performances of the young performers give “The Black Phone” its heart, even as Hawke haunts the screen. It takes skill to balance such a wide variety of emotions as Thames and McGraw do. Periods of childlike joy and adolescent comedy are carefully infused with moments of fear, rage, despair, and fury. The film “The Black Phone” centers on young teenagers, therefore the jokes are appropriate.
Both Thames and McGraw are given brief moments in the spotlight and make the most of each minute of one-on-one time to tear down any emotional distance that the screen could have provided. However, some of the most moving passages are when they are silent and demonstrate an unbreakable sibling bond in the face of abuse and hardship.
The story of perseverance and support told in “The Black Phone” is actually a semi-paranormal serial killer movie. The Black Phone excels at its fundamental elements and lets its nuances take charge thanks to consistently passionate performances from all of the actors and a powerful atmosphere. Character development takes center stage in the narrative while the gore is secondary, but the movie never forgets to thrill. Your knees will instead be drawn to your chest, and your teeth will be clenched by the intensity of the expertly built tension in the movie and your sympathy for Finney.
Available in theaters now.