MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Horror-Thriller/Stars: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell, James Ransone/Runtime: 102 minutes
I think it best to start this review off by letting you in on a teeny tiny little filmmaking secret. That being that a genuinely great slice of horror cinema is not always going to be one that revolves around cramming in as many jump scares as it possibly can. By the same token it also can be said that creatures of a wide variety, no matter how impressive they may look, hiding and stalking around in the dark looking for a fresh set of victims to strike down in cold blood do not always a genuinely great slice of horror cinema make either. With those in mind you are probably wondering “what then Alan CAN make for a genuinely great slice of horror cinema should you remove those two elements from the equation altogether?” Well here is what I think: I think that the thing makes for a genuinely terrific horror slice of cinema is if it presents you with a narrative that scares you because it manages to strike a terror-tinged cord of relatability within your being and subsequently causes you to put yourself in the horror-fueled set of circumstances being faced by the victims. Indeed it is for this reason that slices of cinema in the vein of Halloween and Jaws from 1978 and 1975 respectively still hold up phenomenally well even to this day and it is also why I can safely say that the new slice of cinema I am reviewing today known as The Black Phone is one that should prove to do the same thing. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that, despite the marketing, is equal parts horror and psychological thriller and works incredibly well at scaring you because of how it manages to remind each and every movie goer of certain terrors that every person has had (or does have right now) of being a young person in a world that seems to be a bit scarier or bleaker than we would like it to be. Indeed the nightmare of being kidnapped as a child by a madman with seemingly little to no hope for rescue and thus having to try and find a reservoir of strength within yourself lest you wish to never see your loved ones ever again is a very dark scenario to be sure. At the same time however, it is also a terrifyingly realistic situation that kids still face to this day and those of us known as adults still face either due to having children of our own or because we remember those days of our lives all too well. Suffice it to say that The Black Phone is able to immerse us in that terror-tinged dread incredibly well and in so doing, with the aid of a phenomenal script to say nothing of a trio of fantastic performances, manages to gift us with a slice of horror cinema that is not only insidiously clever, but also surprisingly deep as well.
The plot is as follows: Taking us into the suburbs surrounding Denver, Colorado all the way back in the long ago year of 1978, The Black Phone gets underway by introducing us to our quiet and unassuming hero Finney and his significantly more outspoken and confident sister Gwen who aren’t exactly having the best go of things at this moment in their lives. That’s because they have the stereotypical pack of bullies who enjoy making their lives a living nightmare when they get done with class for the day, but then at night they have to deal with their drunk of a father who could wail into them with a belt for even the littlest thing at seemingly any given moment. Of course as if that wasn’t enough, we soon see things are about to get even worse for our dynamic sibling duo. This is because I forgot to mention one little detail about the world occupied by these two characters. Namely that here lately their neighborhood has been stricken with a paralyzing terror courtesy of at least five kids being kidnapped by an enigmatic man driving a black van (cliché I know, but hey sometimes clichés work for a reason) that everyone has started to refer to as “The Grabber” and then they are never seen or heard from again. I bring that up because it isn’t long before we see that one day while walking home from school by himself Finney is tragically targeted by this psychopath and made into victim number six. Thus we see the madman soon bring our intrepid hero to his lair and promptly place him in a quasi-sorta prison where, among other items inside, is an old out of service black rotary dial phone hung up on the wall. Yet despite being long since disconnected and being told by his abductor that it doesn’t work, we see that Finney soon discovers that it does work, but not in the way you or I might be thinking. You see the phone still can receive calls, but with the caveat being that the people calling are actually The Grabber’s previous victims making a (hopefully) toll-free call back into our world to try and aid our hero in winning the desperate battle for survival that they tragically were unable to. Thus with the clock ticking can our sibling duo, one from inside his cell and being assisted by ghosts and the other from the outside world and with the aid of the cops as well as a surprise ability, find a way to best this maniac at his own sick and twisted little game? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader…..
Now we see that this slice of cinema was brought to us by film helmer Scott Derrickson and his frequent partner in crime C. Robert Cargill as a cinematic adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill who also happens to be the son of one Stephen King. I tell you this because honestly the script that this dynamic duo penned for this film is easily one of the best positives that it has going for it. Indeed here is a script that manages to merge together a sly ghost saga, a fairly emotional coming-of-age story, and a thriller as relentless as the hands on a clock into a story that is beautifully unique, but also comfortably run of the mill in certain aspects as well. It also does a terrifyingly good job of making that universal terror of not having control of your life to say nothing of having no idea what the future holds, all encapsulated in an ominous concrete prison cell of sorts, feel genuine due in large part to how things build-up to say nothing of how grim the voices on the other end of the phone are. I also feel that another key component behind the camera that is a wonderful asset in contributing to the overall unnerving vibe that this slice of cinema is working with would be the fact that the violence, when it occurs, is both visceral and quite blunt. At the same time, the film makes the wonderful choice to also make the violence on display never once feel like it is exploitable in any way, but rather essential toward making us aware that the world of this film is one where yes bad things can occur and yes righteousness doesn’t always win the day. Thus because the film goes out of the way to make the characters in the film aware of the horrors of both agony and barbarity, it also makes it so we are never once questioning if The Grabber is as terrifying as we are being led to believe that he is. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the collection of scares on display never once feel neutered in any way. Oh there are moments where you will be startled, but trust me when I say every single degree of torment on display in this is legitimately acquired. Of course, there is an otherworldly aspect to the horror on display, but it is merely a reinforcement to both how grim the set of circumstances our main character is trapped in are to say nothing of Hawke’s truly terrifying portrayal of the villain in this that manage to ensure the tension in this consistently stays fairly high from beginning to end. At the same time, this slice of cinema also does a wonderful job of not spelling everything out or showing you everything and letting you fill in the blanks for yourself. Nowhere is this clearer in the fact that yes there is never any doubt that The Grabber in this is a fairly sick guy and yes there is no doubt that he is most likely doing some really twisted things to these kids. At the same time we don’t really see what it is that he does to these kids before he kills them. Rather, the film instead does a brilliant job of just letting how straight up menacing this guy is to say nothing of the veiled threatening statements he makes start to fill in the blanks for the audience and in that respect this slice of cinema is infinitely and thankfully a heck of a lot more terrifying to say nothing of even-keeled as a result. Finally, I also think the creative team behind the camera deserves praise for managing to do a wonderful job in bringing us back in time to late 70s courtesy of a beautiful attention to detail in terms of costuming, hairstyles, and even the soundtrack to name but a few things. Of course, every so often film helmer Derrickson does deploy imagery that, eerily reminds me of the film Sinister’s Super 8 movies, doesn’t quite work on the level that it should, but is also thankfully never really all that unwelcome either. By the same token, we see this film does deploy a few phrases as well as 70s throwbacks (with particular regard to certain TV programs as well as to something called Vietnam) that really do give off the vibe of trying to lean too much into the decade the film is set in. No it doesn’t make this film go off the rails by any means, but it does stick out like a sore thumb especially because the majority of the film behind the camera is so phenomenal.
Now even though this slice of cinema does possess those aforementioned flaws behind the camera, I can also say that a lot of these are also all obscured by the also aforementioned fantastic work done by this film’s script as well as by its trinity of lead performers. This starts with Ethan Hawke who I know is not known for portraying villainous roles, but at the same time I also know that Hawke is able to bring a lot to any film he is a part of. With that said, this slice of cinema does a wonderful job of providing some novel acting tests for Hawke, and of course it should come as no surprise to learn that Hawke is able to rise to the challenges set for him and give a horrifically great performance. I mean I am not kidding when I tell you dear reader that the character of The Grabber is legitimately scary. Indeed Hawke does a fantastic job at playing an antagonist who mostly has to showcase emotion mostly through his truly haunting glances whilst also depending on using both the expressions on a wide variety of demonic masks his character wears throughout the film as well as a voice that is able to go from cheeky and almost playful in a way to downright chilling in a heartbeat. Suffice it to say that this is not only one of the better horror film antagonists so far this year, but this is also a terrific addition to Hawke’s already impressive cinematic resume. Now there is no denying that yes the rest of this film’s cast does a good job, but amongst that group the stars that shine the brightest are without a doubt Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. Indeed as our main character, and reluctant guide through this nightmare, Finney has a meekness and continual inner terror about him that might drive you nuts, but it is also very understandable as well since this is a kid who has been beaten up by both life itself to say nothing of a lot of people in said life as well. With that said though, the arc that this film presents this character with is penned in such a manner that it doesn’t really feel shoehorned in any way. Rather, it’s just a character being forced to grow up and see the world for how it really is a heck of a lot quicker than they might like, but ultimately has to if they wish to survive. Suffice it to say that it is a truly wonderful performance and one that I hope leads to bigger and better things in the future for this young actor. The same most definitely can be said for McGraw who does a wonderful job of giving us a character who is very much a 70s kid, but who also wonderfully has no qualms about blasting adults and fellow kids with a string of curse words whilst also showing she has an admirable degree of both toughness, but also vulnerability about her as well. Suffice it to say that the character is a terrific fictional creation, but it is McGraw’s skill as a performer that really makes her so darn memorable. Suffice it to say that I can’t even begin to offer up enough in the way of praise for this dynamic acting duo and I hope that we see more movie roles for the both of them in the future.
All in all well I am certainly glad that I answered this call. Indeed the slice of cinema that is The Black Phone is a wonderfully anxiety-inducing to say nothing of concise horror film that is perfectly reinforced by a thematic concept dealing with the power of family and friendship in potentially overcoming the evils of the world. Indeed every single component of this slice of cinema on both sides of the camera is emotionally gripping to say nothing of conquering a long-held terror in a way that is phenomenally on-point. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: it doesn’t matter if it’s the 70s or today, there is evil in this world and it can exist in such forms ranging from as simple as the bully who terrorizes you in the hallway at school to as chilling as a sinister psychopath who is going around the neighborhood kidnapping and possibly murdering people. Yet even though evil is very much present in the world around us, there is also aid to help us deal with it when we need it most. In order to find it however, there is one thing we have to be willing to do and that is to just take a moment and listen. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Black Phone “2022” a solid 3.5 out of 5.