“‘I see dead people’” is back and reimagined in Scott Derrickson’s new film “The Black Phone.” Set during the 1970s, the film begins when young boys start to vanish in a Denver suburb and fear spreads through the community.
“The Black Phone” follows a young Finn “Finney” Shaw (Mason Thames), the quiet boy who is an easy target for bullies. Finney’s strength and willpower are put to test when The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), who has been terrorizing the neighborhood by snatching up children off the streets, gets to him. The list of the boys who were taken before him — some of whom he was friends with — haunts Finn in more ways than one while he’s locked in a grimy basement with nothing but a dirty mattress and an unhooked black landline phone hanging on the wall. His bold and defiant sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who has been seeing things that seem to come true in her dreams, makes it her and Jesus’ mission to find and save Finney.
With a nostalgic look and feel, “The Black Phone” captures the atmosphere of a time when things felt free but fear was rising. As far as horror goes, besides a few child ghost jumpscares, the true horror of this movie comes from the character-driven performances and plot that moves at just the right fast pace. The performances, primarily from Thames and McGraw, drive this story. Both young actors bring depth and truthfulness to the haunting tale. McGraw, who is seen cursing at cops and Jesus throughout the film, brings humor and levity at times, yet she also has some of the most heartbreaking scenes — such as the fight with her and Finn’s abusive father or when she believes she can help save Finney. Ethan Hawke, while suited in a creepy mask for the vast majority of his screen time, plays a childlike but vicious captor and killer while he taunts and punishes Finn, giving a threatening edge that moves the film forward.
Derrickson, who also directed “Doctor Strange” (2016), is most notably known for the 2012 horror film “Sinister.” The team behind “The Black Phone,” Ethan Hawke, Derrickson, and co-writer Robert Cargill, were originally brought together with “Sinister” to create a frightening, supernatural experience. For its time “Sinister” felt original and genuinely scary, building tension in just the right places and playing into audiences’ fears. However, “The Black Phone” does not seem to hit the mark in the same way. Unlike the other, this movie attempts to tackle a little more than it can handle. Along with Finn’s abduction, the abusive alcoholic father and the deceased mother who passed down her clairvoyant powers to Gwen are only brushed upon and not explored with any complexity but rather only on a surface level, close to breaking through but not quite there yet with everything else going on.
“The Black Phone” is one of the most anticipated theatrical widely-released horror films this summer. One of the most popular and best-selling points for the horror genre has been the rise of “Blockbuster” like horror films, ones which usually rely on religious themes, paranormal activity and jump scares, but this seems to be slowly phasing out.
This film seems to sit in the same place as James Wan (“The Conjuring,” “Insidious”), Mike Flanagan (“The Haunting of Hill House,” “Midnight Mass”) or Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”) shows and films. They know what will bring in an audience and gross a significant amount of money. Horror is a tricky genre to navigate, especially with the subcategories and changes the genre has endured over the years. “The Black Phone” appears to be torn in the middle of the late oughts and early teen 2000 films while inching toward where horror has been shifting to over the past few years.
Recent genre films have stepped away from the jump scare tactics and have shifted towards stories with complexity, where the scary thing is something deeply rooted personal or psychologically. Something like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017), dealing with racism, Ari Aster’s “Hereditary ” (2018), touching on family demons or Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2015) and its ex-communication and isolation are all key examples of successful films shifting the genre. “The Black Phone” has hints of this approach, yet it still feels as if it is catering to a larger audience, not taking the time to truly unpack what it lays out for its viewers, which ultimately makes it fall flat. But, “The Black Phone,” while it does nothing extraordinary or inventive as a horror movie, provides an engaging viewing experience.
“The Black Phone” is now playing in a theater near you.