I know that I’m about two weeks late. Elvis took priority in my weekly viewing first (truly fantastic movie, always been a Baz fan). However, I took the next opportunity to catch The Black Phone and boy what a treat it was. I really did enjoy this film, and it’s continued to get better the more I reflect on it.
This is the fourth horror project of Scott Derrickson that I’ve seen, and it takes second place to The Exorcism of Emily Rose. For those not familiar with Derrickson, he is responsible for the film Sinister which in has held the number one spot until 2021 for the scientifically scariest movie in a study conducted by Broadband Choices UK called the “Science of Scares.” It’s not my personal favorite, but I do tip my hat to a certain scene with a lawnmower, as it is one of the best horror scenes I’ve ever seen. Much like Sinister, The Black Phone has some flaws that pop out to me.
I will be discussing the highs and the lows of the film here, so if you haven’t seen it, go and watch it! I caught it on a value day, but I would pay full price to see it again–so go and watch it or scroll down and face the consequences of getting things mildly spoiled. Now let’s jump into this void of a detailed review.
Let’s get straight to it: Ethan Hawke
I’m sure you’ve heard by now, but Ethan Hawke is amazing in this film. He is truly a terrifying villain which differs from the heartthrob, sensitive roles I’ve loved him in. He really took the plunge and played a complexly evil man chock full of dysfunction. While all the elements of his character weren’t fully explained in the film, he portrayed who he was in full confidence that even a viewer with zero context of the story can reach a mutual understanding of who he is and what his motivations might be.
Taking place in the late 70s, The Grabber’s targets emulate one similar to John Wayne Gacy–with details being eerily similar that doubles down on the creep factor for familiar viewers. The varied complex emotions that he swings to seamlessly is very similar to the skill portrayed by Toni Collette in the dinner scene from Hereditary. Accompanied with the variety of creepy masks that only adds on to the performance, this movie is worth seeing for just his performance alone.
Brilliant Kid actors: Another It Phenomenon
However, it is not just Ethan Hawke that excels. The child actors that play the main characters in this film are beyond brilliant, especially the sister. Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are what brings the film to life. They also add quite a lot of heart to the story. Starting out in their abusive household, your heart automatically hurts for these kids as the story goes on. It makes the abduction scene that more intense and heartbreaking, as you know their farewell to each other might be their last.
I give major props to McGraw here for her performance. She’s a convincing psychic and delivers some heartfelt, comedic lines through the film that breaks up the tension a bit. This does not discount Thames’ performance as well as the rest of the younger actors, who are at the center of this horror. The film starts out a bit slow. However this is only for us to get an insight and bond with these two children before they are thrust into the whirlpool that is this movie’s act II and III. We’re approaching a decade now of incredibly strong child actors in horror-based content such as Stranger Things and IT. Boy, do they add brilliance to their stories.
Peak Storytelling: Well Crafted
The scares from this film came from the realism. I meant it by drawing up comparisons to Gacy. Probably the scenes that delivered the most is the abduction scenes and the overall desensitization of the community as it occurs more and more often. The dream sequences and storytelling are top notch, making this seem much like a passion project of Derrickson’s. I also believe that it is aided that this is an adaptation of a novella, meaning there was structure to build off of.
Not that the two are remotely comparable in regard to story content, but I feel that this tale was told better than Sinister. Derrickson played within his wheelhouse of gritty realism. For example, the scariest pieces of Sinister are the found ‘snuff’ films. This played it out through the film’s entirety. I see the progress only going up from here. If he has Hawke as his De Niro, the only direction is up for the duo.
Uneven Pacing and Plot Holes: The only Complaints
While I mostly want to sing its praises, The Black Phone is not flawless. Because it is an adaptation, the film relies too much on inference. There are a lot of unanswered questions and details that only the source material delves into and reveals. While this might cause the average viewer to pick up the book to find more, majority of film viewers will see these as merely plot holes. However, the questions don’t need to be answered to enjoy the movie and understand the main points.
Another issue that can grind people’s gears is the pacing. The pacing is very similar to a typical somber psychological thriller. That being said there are quite a few moments where things seem to lull. However, I had no complaints as some of my favorite horror/thriller movies are slow burns. However, the way that this film was marketed was as a pure horror film. I can confidently say that it is not what it was marketed as. Reminiscent of films such as Zodiac or Se7en, it’s the burn of the chase.
Overall Review of The Black Phone
I definitely recommend this movie and believe it’s more enjoyable once one knows what they’re getting into. It’s an intense thriller that doesn’t let go once it sets off. It’s a solid film from Scott Derrickson that showcases stellar performances. The key reason to watch this film is to get blown away by Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames and Madeline McGraw. They delivered through the whirling hour and 42 minutes. Finally, I think it’s a must see in theaters before it’s gone. If you’re seeing this too late, watch in a pitch-black room–should get the same creepy effects.
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