It’s hard to imagine there was ever a time in America when kids could roam the streets in broad daylight to near and after dark in suburbia and be kids – get into trouble, play games, ride bikes, while the parents could have a peace of mind knowing their kid was safe and would come home when called upon. In the short story written by author Joe Hill, son of the legendary Stephen King, for which this adaptation is based on, that safe haven, doesn’t exist. Front doors should remain locked, and parents should be keeping a closer eye on where their kids go and with whom they spend time with after school and on the weekends. Safety is not guaranteed anymore.
Taking place in suburban Colorado in 1978 where 5 children go missing, a calm and peaceful town is now on edge. Angry neighbors and frightened parents want answers that the police can’t provide. Instead, detectives seek out the assistance of Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) who has lucid dreams about the titular serial killer dubbed the “Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) who abducts kids using a black van only to have black balloons be the only shred of evidence left behind. No kid is safe on the streets especially Gwen’s slightly older brother Finney (Mason Thames), the 6th and final victim of the “Grabber”.
Adapted and written by frequent writing duo Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Sinister), the former also serving as director, the pair take the short story and add enough meat and potatoes to an already heavy subject matter that puts the viewer in the shoes of the abductee instead of the the adults searching for the missing person. The result is an endearing story told of bravery, survival and forgiveness with a supernatural twist featuring some gruesome but thrilling moments that frankly don’t happen often enough. When the “jump scares” do make an appearance, each one is expertly placed to raise the adrenaline while not used cheaply for the sake of a scare.
Calling The Black Phone a horror movie is a bit of a stretch, I’d go as far as saying it’s an elevated thriller with horror elements infused throughout.
Derrickson and Cargill gradually increase the tension and discomfort the moment the first boy is taken – not showing the kidnapping but fading to black once the van slowly pulls into the background of the frame, the writing team lets us imagine the horror of it all, especially coming after a moment of sportsmanship at a baseball game against Finney whose arm is “mint”. Seeing only half of the abductions take place during the film makes the mind wander as to how exactly no witnesses were around. The Grabber chose his targets carefully but the explanation for why those kids were taken isn’t necessary to commit to this villain’s haunting mission.
Albert, the Grabbers actual name, is not a typical captor. Covering his face is a demon mask that has a Japanese Hannya resemblance to it, hinting at his jealousy of a normal childhood. He does provide the basic amenities for the threshold of survival, an old, lived-in bed with a nailed in frame, a toilet, a window for sunlight and fresh eggs every morning, but he often leaves Finney alone. To be fair, every victim before Finney didn’t try and stay put, they made their escape attempt only to be caught by the Grabber who was waiting for them at the top of the stairs. It was all apart of the Grabbers game of cat and mouse – playing with his food before giving into his uncontrollable rage.
Though a small ensemble, Derrickson’s film is anchored by the trio of performances from Hawke, McGraw, and Thames. Not only is Hawke having one of those exceptional years (appearing in Moon Knight and The Northman), but his co-stars also elevate his performance while the brother, sister stand out on their own. The Black Phone draws its themes from Finney, mostly. As an athlete, Finney is still subjected to bullying, even though he’s an ace pitcher. Coming to his rescue is his best friend and sister Gwen who shoulders the bravery for 2/3 of the film. She’s fierce and unapologetic in aiding Finney, even standing up to the detectives in one of the more humorous moments that eases the tension. While the writing is bulletproof, the two young stars give unforgettable performances. They’re the underdogs you can’t help but root for.
Finney isn’t the only learning to stand up for himself. Finney and Gwen’s alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) is fighting demons of his own, which gets taken out on the kids. This is where the theme of forgiveness shines through. Davies as the father is redeemable, little hints are sprinkled throughout suggesting that he’s suffering from a loss but given the runtime, not enough time is spared for this subplot to fully develop. Derrickson starts his film at a quick pace but it’s in the second act that the wheels start to slow and the film coasts toward the third act where the pace, action and horror elements pick up speed.
Usually, the horror genre is not my cup of tea, I don’t seek out horror films, I much prefer thrillers and borderline disturbing horror themes, but The Black Phone has me second guessing my trepidation toward diving headfirst into a lush genre. I adore this film, every element is given enough care and purpose – my only actual sense of criticism comes from my selfish wish that the film was longer, and Finney had more adversity to overcome from cowardice to bravery. Otherwise, for 102 minutes, the film sings. Made for mere pennies, The Black Phone will be yet another success for Jason Blum and Blumhouse productions.
Written By: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Directed By: Scott Derrickson
Music By: Mark Korven
Cinematography: Brett Jutkiewicz
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, Jason Ransone, Ethan Hawke
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 42 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Based On: The Black Phone by Joe Hill