A Welcome Return to Horror For Ethan Hawke
Score 9/10 - Highly Recommend
Posted by Anthony DeRouen | September 19th, 2022
Sinister (2012) alums Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill team up for another horror gem in The Black Phone - based on a pitch from Joe Hill. Ethan Hawke and James Ransome (anyone remember Deputy So-and-So?) are also on board, along with a number of other familiar aspects I’ll dive into. To put it plainly, The Black Phone is an intelligent thriller that seeps into your bones if you allow it.
Director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargil have teamed up for a number of projects since 2012’s Sinister, notably Doctor Strange, and The Black Phone doesn’t disappoint. For horror movies to release in June - traditionally a breeding ground for tent pole blockbusters vying for media attention - The Black Phone showed real legs earning $159 million worldwide against a budget of 18 million. A critical and commercial success thanks to Blumhouse Productions Hollywood might, and excellent word of mouth. The Black Phone also represents a welcome return to horror for Ethan Hawke.
The Black Phone follows a 13-year old boy named Finney Shaw, who lives in a neighborhood where kids routinely pummel each other with their fists to little consequence. Among all of this UFC-style takedowns and ground-and-pounds is a serial kidnapper dubbed The Grabber. At first glance it’s Long Chaney ‘s character from London After Midnight, or Mister Babadook for you horror enthusiasts. That’s where the similarities end, however, because this is a different type of criminal.
Throughout the course of the film we realize The Grabber has experienced similar if not worse trauma than his victims.
We never learn his true name and I’m quietly thankful for this because, frankly, we don’t care. He’s a bad man, doing bad things and deserves to be caught and punished. The Grabber is not the focal point of the story, Finney is.
Finney - played by Mason Thames - exudes rare stoicism for a child his age. Finney is bullied inside his house, and on the school yard. He keeps his chin up and presents a shoulder for his younger sister to cry on. This comes into play later when FInney is grabbed by The Grabber. Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargil waste no time in taking us to the meat of the story, and that is Finney’s interactions with The Grabber’s prior victims through use of a black phone mounted into a concrete dungeon of sorts underneath his house. The phone is old, and doesn’t work, but the supernatural have no trouble getting a dial tone. Both Finney and The Grabber, surprisingly, can hear the rings, and while The Grabber repeatedly tells Finney to ignore it, Finney picks up the phone.
The base of the story is set for a series of confrontations and phone calls, with each victim relaying to Finney what they were able to accomplish in the basement before they were killed. One victim warns Finney not to take the bait of pursing an unlocked door upstairs because The Grabber is waiting , masked and shirtless, to take a beating to him. Another victim informs Finney he hid a cord which leads to the bars on a window coming down. Another managed to weaken the floor tile enough Finney could pull it apart and dig a hole – thereby creating a trap. When asked why the ghosts of the kids are helping Finney, one simply replies it’s not about Finney, but getting back at The Grabber.
From a narrative standpoint things line up pretty easily for Finney. The ghosts give him the tools his needs while his younger clairvoyant sister directs the authorities to the Grabber's whereabouts. In video game terms you are playing story mode: the immense challenge of overcoming this maniac is neutralized, hence allowing you to enjoy the story better. Through the lens of The Black Phone it works.
The real punch in The Black Phone emanates on the revenge the bloodied teenage ghosts pursue which is visceral, highly-focused and terrifying. These kids were in the early stages of their youth, so much life ahead of them cut short by a maniac in a mask. Their attempts at escape all failed, but each had something tangible to offer Finney. In the end Finney needed each piece along with finding his spirit to fight back in order to survive. I’m a big fan of Sinister, Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargil’s earlier work, so it wasn’t hard to notice a striking similarity between them involving slain children turned paranormal entities, a subversion to familiar horror tropes all its own. While not identical in use the end result is the same.
Credit should also be given to the presentation of The Black Phone. Brett Jutkiewicz’s camera work drops us into a striking re-creation of 1978, chalk full of recognizable attire, eateries, gaming venues, color palettes and hairstyles. As the filmmakers alluded to, the 70’s were a time when criminals carried names printed in newspapers and The Grabber fit like a glove.