The Black Phone (2022)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I was curious to see the horror film “The Black Phone” just because it features one of my favorite likable everyman actors, Ethan Hawke, playing against type as a child-snatching masked madman/killer–it’s also from Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, the same director and writers behind another Hawke-centric horror film, Sinister, which I really liked.

I think “The Black Phone” is even better. I mean it, guys–this film got me GOOD!

It even got me in the first act. It takes about 25 minutes before our lead kid character, Fin (Mason Thames), is snatched by the aforementioned scary-ass creepo-psycho known as The Grabber (Hawke)–but well before then, I was already scared for this kid and his sister/buddy Gwen (Madeleine MacGraw), as they deal with not only school bullies but also an abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who beats them with his belt. Somebody get these kids some help!!

All the while, we keep hearing of the disappearances of local kids who are last seen (sadly, by only the audience) with a creepy black van approaching them. One of them was a friend of Fin’s; another was a brief acquaintance at Fin’s baseball game, calling Fin’s pitching arm “mint” (the film is set in 1978; thanks to the 1979-set “Super 8,” I know what “mint” means). Vibes of IT with stranger-danger undertones get me creeped out before Fin even encounters the Grabber…

Can I just take a moment to say Ethan Hawke is pretty much perfect in this role? I’m familiar with him as the likable everyman in the “Before” movies, “Boyhood,” and “Training Day”–but here, he’s having a lot of fun playing pure evil. We don’t get a lot of background on this Grabber character, let alone a name, but all we need to know is he is very unstable, has a particular and sinister mindset, loves to play with his victims, and has disposed of many innocent children already. Even though he wears a mask most of the time (and I mean many different creepy masks), I can feel his facial expressions change underneath it…and it’s disturbing. Very disturbing.

Anyway, Fin gets locked in a basement dungeon by the Grabber who says he wants to “play a game” with Fin. But Fin knows anyone who has ever been down here has never resurfaced alive. There’s a black phone connected to the wall that is disconnected and doesn’t seem to work…or does it? Whatever its use is, it could help Fin find a way out, escape with his life, and/or dispatch the killer.

Every attempt Fin tries to escape and every encounter he has with the Grabber whenever he comes downstairs to visit him (he even watches him sleep at one point….yikes) gave me THE CREEPS. I don’t use that expression often, but that’s what “The Black Phone” did to me–this film gave me. The. CREEPS. Shivers up and down my spine. Half a dozen times.

You get the point (I hope).

Derrickson’s direction is on-point and I can tell both he and Cargill both have a passion for great horror filmmaking. And they also both know that in a great horror film, you can’t have horrificness without love or compassion–that’s where Fin’s loving sister Gwen comes in; Gwen has psychic visions and has had glimpses of previous victims before and now she’s determined, some would say hellbent, to find her brother. (She’s even allowed to have a few funny moments here or there too, particularly when she’s praying to Jesus for help and uses some particular choice words.)

With the aid of a hella scary villain in Hawke, two excellent juvenile actors playing characters I root for, and a great sense of atmosphere and care, Derrickson & Cargill have taken a short story by Joe (son of Stephen King) Hill and turned into a horror film that I think is determined to be treasured and revered for years to come.

It’s earned a definite spot on my year-end list, that’s for sure.

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