Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Premise: Based on a short story by Joe Hill. A thirteen-year-old boy (Mason Thames) is abducted by a killer (Ethan Hawke) who wears a demonic mask. While being kept prisoner in a basement, the boy receives phone calls from the ghosts of the killer’s other victims.
What Works: The Black Phone is a survival story with a supernatural hook. A lot of the movie takes place in a basement where teenage Finny is imprisoned by a child killer. He must find a way out and the ghostly phone calls point him toward different options of escape and self-defense. His various attempts are mostly credible and they all come to bear in the ending. The action in the basement portions of this movie is smart, unified storytelling. The ghosts aid Finny along—he doesn’t have the pressure of thinking of everything himself—but their presence also raises the stakes. Finny’s survival isn’t just about himself; it’s about avenging the deaths of these other children. His success is their success. That loads the climax with additional meaning and makes the story all the more satisfying. The Black Phone is set in the 1970s and it captures the time well. The art direction and costuming look authentically of its era. Also, unlike some retro pieces such as Stranger Things, this film does not sanitize the past. It includes some of the uglier aspects of life at that time and especially childhood. The Black Phone has a gritty and cruel vibe that lends reality to the premise. This is a tense film with a vivid atmosphere of dread. The killer stalks the neighborhood in a black van and early scenes feature the vehicle in the background, gradually passing closer in the build up to the abduction. Once Finney has been captured the film has an increasing sense of desperation and impending doom. The Black Phone benefits from some exceptional performances. Mason Thames is quite good as Finney. In several scenes he is the only actor on screen and Thames holds our attention. Ethan Hawke plays the killer and he’s very creepy. Also impressive is Madeleine McGraw as Finney’s sister Gwen. McGraw is the strongest presence in the picture and the early scenes of Finney and Gwen’s relationship and their troubled homelife with their abusive father (Jeremy Davies) grounds the film in something real.
What Doesn’t: The Black Phone includes a subplot focusing on Gwen’s psychic powers. She uses her abilities to investigate her brother’s disappearance but the psychic subplot doesn’t amount to anything. It could be cut from the story without changing anything. Also, law enforcement’s reliance on this girl’s supernatural gift and the weight they place on her visions hurts the film’s credibility.
Bottom Line: The Black Phone is a frightening and suspenseful horror picture. While the plotting is a little wobbly, the film succeeds as a story of captivity and survival.
Episode: #909 (July 10, 2022)