Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
A Child Killer with a Magic Touch
Somewhere in North Denver in 1978, The Black Phone sees Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) attempting to survive constant bullying at school and the abuse of an alcoholic father (played by Jeremy Davies). The missing kids in town are said to be a result of The Grabber (Ethan Hawke); a man who drives around in a black van with black balloons kidnapping and eventually killing kids. When Finney is suddenly taken by The Grabber, he’s told that the black phone in his room doesn’t work but then the phone rings.
Based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, The Black Phone is directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister) and written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (the two have been collaborating together on everything Derrickson has done since Sinister). What’s interesting is The Black Phone has mastered the art of subtlety and teasing its audience. The Grabber is introduced in the film similar to the shark in Jaws. You only see glimpses of him for the first third of the film. The black van will come into frame and the screen will immediately fade to black. The Grabber will park and get out of his van to abduct a kid, but he’ll purposely be out of focus. The Grabber lurks in the background like a shark waiting for that first drop of blood, which is essentially when Finney walks by alone.
The unfortunate aspect is that it feels like something is missing. The supernatural horror film keeps building and building that when the finale rolls around it feels like it isn’t a big enough payoff. Most of the violence and kills aren’t seen since the film deals with child and teenager victims. The audience is shown the end result instead; the wounds sustained by the victims that call Finney, The Grabber’s game of Naughty Boy, and Gwen being whipped with a belt by her father (you see him holding the belt and her crying, but we never see the contact). There’s artistry to leaving some things to the viewer’s imagination. In a time where horror has evolved into showing its audience every gruesome detail it’s become a forgotten art. It could also be a personal preference, but it feels like The Black Phone teases more than it reveals.
The writing of the film is as genius as it is ridiculous. Most of it is very good, especially with what Finney is building up to in the basement. The unveiling of the location of The Grabber’s house is silly though, especially since an entire police squad didn’t make the connection. Finney and Gwen’s mom is never seen since she’s passed during the events of the film, but she is mentioned. She apparently heard things and seen things that ended up in a fatal situation for her. Gwen has visions of The Grabber while she sleeps and Finney is able to receive phone calls from The Grabber’s victims because of the relation to their mom. This leads to one of the greatest lines in the film when Finney asks why no one has ever called before. “The phone rang, but no one heard it.”
You Have Received a Collect Call From Your Exquisitely Gruesome Fate. Do You Accept?
Ethan Hawke’s performance is so mesmerizing that you wish he had more screen time. Even his motive behind what he intends to do with his victims is hinted at, but not really clarified. With all of the bodies piling up and the amount of phone calls Finney receives, the end result is always the same. The Grabber is slightly flamboyant in his demeanor and particular about how everything should play out. His mask and the fact that it resembles the comedy and tragedy masks that tend to symbolize the theater hint at this all being a performance for him. Things not going his way is like someone fumbling over their lines; it’s unforgivable.
Madeleine McGraw is not so secretly the best part of the film. Her career before The Black Phone has mostly been in voice acting (Cars 3, Toy Story 4, The Mitchells vs The Machines) and playing younger versions of other characters (Pacific Rim: Uprising, Ant-Man and the Wasp). McGraw gets a fair amount of screen time here and Gwen is an incredibly resourceful character and arguably the film’s biggest asset. McGraw’s performance is genuine as you believe every word she says. She’s hilarious as she has the best lines of dialogue in the film. Her portrayal of sadness and anguish is top notch as well as she has the most powerful and emotional sequence in the film that breaks your heart and only makes you sympathize with both her and Finney.
With supernatural dread lifted directly from the likes of Stir of Echoes and The Sixth Sense, The Black Phone features a breakthrough performance from Madeleine McGraw while Ethan Hawke’s hauntingly memorable turn as The Grabber is felt in a hair-raising sense; like someone who has unknowingly snuck up behind you and waits in your peripheral for that dramatic reveal. The Black Phone is a solid, pulse racing horror film that packs a punch, but seems like the type of film that simply won’t be as delectable on repeat viewings.
© 2022 Chris Sawin