The Black Phone Review

PLOT: A young boy (Mason Thames) is kidnapped by a notorious serial killer called The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). With only days to go before his captor kills him, he’s aided by a mysterious black phone which connects him to the Grabber’s deceased former victims.

REVIEW: The Black Phone is a terrific example of an ever-popular kind of genre offering: the coming-of-age horror film. It’s a genre that’s seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to It: Chapter 1 & 2. Why is this type of horror movie so effective? On the one hand, they hit on our nostalgia, but they also remind us of how scary everything was when we were kids. There’s a window from about 10-to 14 years of where you’re old enough to have some independence but young enough that your neighborhood seems immense. The world beyond is entirely unknown. Nothing is more terrifying than what exists in your community, be it the spooky house down the street or the park we were told not to go to after dark.

The Black Phone, from director Scott Derrickson (which he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill), is based on a novel by Joe Hill, and it’s a slam-bang little movie. Set in 1978, it’s about a suburb being terrorized by a serial child murderer known as “The Grabber.” Enter Mason Thames as Finney Shaw. He’s a nice kid, but one who’s easy prey for bullies at school. Things aren’t much better at home, with his dad an abusive drunk. The only silver lining for him is his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who always has his back despite being younger and pint-sized. And oh yeah, she may also be psychic. One-by-one, Finney’s school-mates are being picked off by The Grabber, and soon his time comes, and he finds himself locked in the killer’s basement.

Sounds grim right? It’s actually not, as Finney is taught to fight back by the spirits of The Grabber’s previous victims, who communicate to him by the titular phone and want to help him escape. Derrickson’s method of depicting the spirits is unique, as we essentially see their gory ghosts, but their voices are distorted to make it sound like they’re coming through the phone. Meanwhile, it’s a race against time as Gwen somehow tries to use her power to point the police in the right direction.

There are a lot of reasons why The Black Phone works so well. One of them is due to the nostalgic period setting and Derrickson’s evident expertise with horror. But, the most important is probably the cast, particularly the two young leads, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. If you don’t care about the kids in a movie like this, it won’t work, but both young actors are great. They feel like real kids in that they mouth off to their parents and have moments of naiveté. But, they also evoke a sense of toughness that was maybe more common of kids in another era, as they’ve essentially been taking care of themselves their whole lives as their dad is such a mess. But even Jeremy Davies, as the abusive drunk dad, evokes some sympathy, making him a less loathsome character than you’d think and one that might be capable of change.

And, of course, there’s also Ethan Hawke as The Grabber. Hawke has only rarely played villains, but he’s terrifying here with his raspy whisper, long hair and unsettling mask. He’s used sparingly and is offscreen more often than not. It works beautifully, and he crafts a truly frightening bad guy in that he feels all-too-real. My only caveat here is that The Grabber is supposed to have killed five kids from the same neighbourhood, but only two cops seem to be on the case. Parents seem very chill about the whole thing. In reality, the FBI and maybe even the National Guard would have been called in, while concerned parents would have probably patrolled the streets with bats and guns (the hysteria surrounding such as event was evoked well in Halloween Kills). Alas, there’s a little thing called suspension of disbelief I guess.

Suffice to say, The Black Phone is rock solid and a pretty perfect little horror movie. Hopefully, it gets a robust theatrical run because this is a movie to see with a big crowd, if ever there was one. They have the goods with this one.

Gary Dauberman is producing an adaptation of the yet-to-be-published Joe Hill short story Ushers for Screen Gems

The Black Phone



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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.