In an era of retro horror like Stranger Things, The Black Phone has a surprising amount of teeth to be both a supernatural thriller and a crowd-pleasing horror picture. Sitting in a theater with an audience watching this film where they jolt in their seats for the frights and cheer when there’s victory is always a treat. Thankfully, this isn’t just another rollercoaster horror where the ride is more engaging than the story.
Thanks to a stellar short story by Joe Hill, Scott Derickson’s direction can make that throwback nature he mastered with Sinister can sing all the better. It is the late 1970s and kids have gone mysteriously missing from a neighborhood over the course of weeks. The mysterious kidnapper, named The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), has managed to elude police with his basement prison, his black van, and his creepy masks. Kids that are forced into his van of black balloons are never seen again.
His latest victim is Finny (Mason Thames), a kid with a lot on his plate. He struggles to handle both the bullies at school and his alcoholic father, each of which seems to push out daily beatings. Finny can’t quite defend himself and instead relies on local tough kids to come to his aid. But when he’s kidnapped by The Grabber, nobody will come for him. Finny has to escape and fight this murderous adult all on his own.
Well, not entirely on his own. Within his basement prison cell is a black phone. Occasionally it rings and the spirits of the dead, in their semi-cryptic language, talk him through how to survive. Despite being rather frightening, they fill Finny with courage and hints to make it out alive. No, not just escape but defeat The Grabber.
While Hawke and Thames give magnificent performances, the show is really stolen by Madeleine McGraw in the role of Finny’s sister Gwen. Gwen might not be able to beat back on bullies or her abusive dad but she has quite the mouth on her. Every scene where she bites back is beautiful. There’s just something so freeing and hilarious about a scene where she cusses down both the school principal and police officers investigating.
Thankfully, she plays a heavy role with her ability to tap into the dreams of the dead. She has visions that occur which slowly lead her closer to The Grabber’s hidden home. And when she isn’t given the information more clearly, she naturally bites back with stinging dialogue. The way she curses out Jesus, believing he’s giving her all this info, is both hilarious and a really compelling scene for this kid questioning her spirituality.
The tension is just magnificent in this film. Finny has so many chances and near-misses in his escape attempts that become nail-biter moments. You can really feel the intensity coursing throughout the audience, eager to see this kid rise above a serial killer. Without giving too much away, let’s just say the audience was incredibly vocal and excited to see where this story ends up.
The Black Phone is as scary as it is exciting, becoming far more than just another retro dose of horror. It’s clever enough to feel original yet tactile enough that it’s easy enough to get wrapped up in its dark tale of childhood loss and supernatural frights. What a hell of a horror picture!