Based on the short story of the same name, The Black Phone takes place in 1978 in a small, suburban Colorado town overrun with reports of multiple child abductions in a short about of time with the media becoming more obsessed and the law enforcers becoming more disillusioned. Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are two such youngsters becoming increasingly intrigued by the abductions and who might be the perpetrator, something heightened by their own abusive father (Jeremy Davies) and their unhappy home lives. The police soon moniker the abductor The Grabber and he has his eyes on his next victim: Finney. Can he break the curse and escape the evil, and are Gwen’s unique dreaming abilities the key to saving him?
The real key to the success of the film lies in its cast and Derrickson and co have found a few gems to help them tell their story, not least of which is Ethan Hawke, who as you may or may not know, is incapable of giving a bad performance. In anything. Strangely, there’s probably a big portion of general audiences that know him from playing Arthur Harrow in Moon Knight more than anything else. Still, in recent years, Hawke has arguably been working at his apex, with his staggering turn in 2018’s First Reformed perhaps his finest hour but rarely have we seen him take a turn to “the dark side” like this.
Still, in typically enthralling fashion, he delivers yet again. Stripped of his fundamental asset as an actor – his face as he spends most of the time on-screen behind a mask – Hawke revels in amplifying the rest of his body language and voice to staggering effect, creating a chilling, unnerving but totally visceral portrayal of a man who has fallen far off the cliff. Indeed, it’s some of the most complex and exhilarating work of his long career. It’s coupled with strong turns from its young stars Thames and McGraw, both of whom have a lot of weight to carry on raw shoulders but elevate the film further with two outstanding performances.
Derrickson, himself, of course, Coming off his venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2016’s Doctor Strange, Derrickson himself has followed the director’s handbook in some respect in terms of cutting his teeth by directing horror films Hellraiser: Inferno and The Exorcism of Emily Rose but he has refined his craft hugely in the years since and The Black Phone is him at his most assured, primarily given his closeness to the subject matter.
But to box the film as just a simple horror or serial killer film is foolhardy as deep beneath its terrifying and gruesome exterior is a coming-of-age story in which Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill blend pathos, humour, and wisdom whilst dealing with the equally chilling themes of bullying, child abuse, and violence. It’s a mixture that, on first inspection, might not blend well but, under the duo’s composed, tenacious screenplay and Derrickson’s intriguing direction, this is another slam dunk for Blumhouse and their ever expanding brand of thoughtful horror.
Horror, Thriller | 2022 | Universal Pictures, Blumhouse | Dir: Scott Derrickson | Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, E. Roger Mitchell