This year’s “it” horror film is upon us! Sorry, Halloween Ends, you’ll have to wait your turn. The Black Phone is the long-awaited horror opus directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Deliver Us from Evil) and written by Joe Hill (Locke and Key, Creep Show, and NOS4RA2).
Black Phone follows an uber-creepy masked creep (AKA the Grabber, Ethan Hawke) who’s maliciously abducting and killing children from a suburban Colorado town in 1978. Interestingly, while the Black Phone is entirely set in Colorado — to be fair it mostly takes place in a soundproof basement — the entire project was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina.
All the horror provenance is certainly there, but is The Black Phone any good? As we often do, the Scariest Things Podcast team is bringing our collective thoughts to the table to look inside this big-budget spook show.
P.S. In case you were wondering, it’s pretty darn good.
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
If jump scares are any indication of a horror film’s worth, this film made me jump clean out of my seat four-plus times (read: maybe five). When I wasn’t jumping out of my seat I had my hands firmly parked on my eyes and alternatively biting my nails. Jump scares, tension, and dread. All are here in equal parts.
While this is a terrifying bit of business what makes the Black Phone so horrifying is the authenticity that director Scott Derrickson brings to the table. Exceptional set design, perfectly composed wardrobe for each and every cast member, a wonderfully memorable soundtrack, and perfect, yes perfect, casting.
The Black Phone might be the best homage to the 1970s since the equally impressive, but entirely different Richard Linklater joint Dazed and Confused. It is easy to see the care that Derrickson and crew brought to the table. Every last scene is thoughtfully put together and seamlessly implemented. From the issues of Starlog magazine falling off the rack during a fight scene at a local convenience store to the quizzical, but frankly perfect use of a Pink Floyd song from their seminal work Dark of the Moon, this is film excellence.
While the star of this serial killer fete is the wonderfully hunky Ethan Hawke, it’s actually the supporting cast, and in particular, Mason Thames as Finney and Madeleine McGraw as Finney’s sister Gwen that really steal the show. The empathy and situational understanding that each of these young actors brings to the table is a real feat. While we know those cowards at the Motion Picture Academy would never nominate either Thames or McGraw for an acting award, we’re here to tell you that they most certainly should.
What makes Black Phone really tick is the near-perfect story and the use of the black phone as a mechanism to connect with the spirit world. In too many paranormal stories we’re left with vague assumptions about the origin or connection to ghostly apparitions, but in The Black Phone, the otherworldly forces are perfected designed, meted out, and implemented.
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, the Black Phone is one of the better horror offerings from the last several years and certainly one of the best films you’ll see in 2022. Here’s top hoping that Joe Hill and Scott Derrickson have many more haunts in years to come!
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
This is what we should be getting more out of the big Hollywood Studios. A good script, with a good director, and good actors. At the Overlook Film Festival, there was very much a feeling that “One of these films is not like the others…” If you are given all the advantages, you need to capitalize on the power of the horror tradition inherent to a studio like Universal.
First and foremost, this is a thrilling movie. It is riveting right from the jump. It is also a movie that feels very personal, a deep character study devoid of too much exposition. Derrickson and Hill employ a “Show, don’t tell” approach to immense effect. There is an extremely high entertainment value to this film, and it does not sacrifice any intelligence in order to achieve the great moments.
The key to The Black Phone is that it bolstered all of its major premises. There is a kidnapper in town who is not just abducting kids, he’s abducting the toughest, most hardened, most likely to survive children in town. Whether they are athletic heroes, street-tough ruffians, or independent bad-asses who no kid at school would dare mess with, these are kids who are conditioned to make it… and yet they don’t.
And that makes the plight of Finney so harrowing. If THOSE kids couldn’t escape, what chance does he have? He’s tough, he can take a punch, but he’s a turtle, not a lion. It is the support of all the kids before him, and the learned experiences that Finney gleans from the ghosts that allow him to survive at all, and gives him a glimmer of hope to get out.
All this goes back to the risk of relying upon child actors, and for this film, the casting came up all aces. The acting felt natural. No kid was too precious. Though there were archetypal characters, they all filled their respective roles to a tee. I hope the Oscars recognize the brilliance of Madeline McGraw’s performance. Her snarky but sweet prayers to find her brother was endearing and hysterical, and there is a scene where she needs to cry, and when she unleashes her painful moans it is absolutely heartbreaking. Perhaps the most effective crying scene I have ever seen on the screen. Top marks Madeline!
Ethan Hawke’s masked abductor is instantly chilling and is disturbing from the jump. The Joker-adjacent mask will be a classic, joining the likes of Ghost Face’s Scream mask, Michael Myer’s William Shatner mask, and Jason’s hockey facial gear. Hawke, while effective, is used sparingly, and that amplifies his threat value. They do not overplay The Grabber’s hand. The Grabber’s presence is always felt but rarely shown in the movie.
I hope this serves as a reminder to big studio productions on how to create a great ORIGINAL horror production. No sequel. No reboot. No re-imagining. This is all new content, and it was awesome. More of this, please! I certainly hope it gets rewarded at the box office for the excellence of the work put in for this one.
The Black Phone is Rated R and available in wide release now, at your local theater.