Ask most horror fans, and they’ll tell you that Sinister is one of the scariest films of the last twenty years...
...Now, the team behind that masterpiece of terror, director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill, are back with The Black Phone, a grim, supernatural thriller which does what the best horror films do: It makes you care.
Written by Derrickson and Cargill and based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill (“Locke and Key”), The Black Phone takes audiences back to the late 70s, where we meet bullied kid Finney (Mason Thames) and his feisty, psychic sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). The town they live in looks just like any other, except a darkness hovers over every home with children disappearing at the hands of a kidnapper dubbed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). When Finney finds himself caught by the masked villain, his fate appears sealed…until the unusable black phone in the basement begins to ring, with the voices of the Grabber’s previous victims on the other end.
Coated in a sickly yellow color scheme with darkness seeping through every crack and crevice, The Black Phone is barely a skip away from the unsettling atmosphere of Sinister. Derrickson and Cargill once again drop audiences into an otherwise normal, every-day setting, choked by the fear of something evil lurking just beneath the surface. Despite spirited baseball games and sweet smiles at crushes from across the classroom, the kids of this town are scared. At the time we meet them, The Grabber has become a legend, one which Finney believes will get him if he says the killer’s name out loud. Meanwhile, The Grabber stalks the town, his black van an ominous presence never too far from our protagonists.
With The Black Phone, the filmmakers return to the taboo of violence against children, even taking it a step further this time. Finney has his fair share of bullies, but we’re not talking swirlies in toilets or wedgies. There’s no sugar coating of the brutality in being a kid. I found myself sitting in squirmy awe at how shocking the fights between kids are portrayed. Just when you think the intensity of the moment will end, it keeps going. And going. And going. It isn’t much better for Finney and Gwen at home, either. They live with their alcoholic single dad (Jeremy Davies), an abusive man full of anger and fear of Gwen’s ability to see visions in her dreams (a tired trope, sure, but one that offers a nice parallel between The Grabber and Finney's father that has him dealing with his emotions at home through his battle with The Grabber). The Black Phone is so aggressive in its abuse of children at times that it will enrage you, terrify you, make you want to get up and scream. Especially with such brilliant, heartfelt performances from Thames and McGraw.
That’s not even touching on The Grabber, who comes off like just as much of a creeper as he sounds thanks to what is undoubtedly the most menacing you’ve ever seen Ethan Hawke. Behind a frightening mask designed by Tom Savini and Jason Baker, Hawke comfortably wears the reptilian skin of his cold-hearted character, occasionally oozing an attempted charm that purposefully feels off, quickly switching gears to a fiendish presence that left me like a deer in headlights. Spouting hints of pedophilia and an understanding that he is capable of unimaginable cruelty, The Grabber is one of horror’s most frightening characters in the last decade, with Hawke at the controls of a captivating portrayal that makes your skin crawl.
Enhanced by Mark Korven’s seedy score that burrows deep into your bones, The Black Phone slithers over your flesh, leaving a coat of foul slime that refuses to wash off. Dread fills the air like pus in a wound, to the point where some may feel overwhelmed. Ghostly visions of mutilated kids and the mere knowledge of The Grabber’s intentions tend to have that effect. Derrickson and Cargill know what scares you, and there is no line which they are afraid to cross.
Unlike the cold soul of Sinister though, The Black Phone pulsates with a warm heart at the center that brings a surprising amount of humor and hope to an otherwise uncomfortable experience.
Like his dad, Stephen King, Joe Hill’s stories are about people with dashes of horror throughout instead of the other way around, and the filmmakers manage to carry that through with their adaptation. Everyone from Finney and Gwen to less important characters like coked up neighbor, Max (a fun cameo by James Ransone), are full of life that feels genuine. The relationship between our two young heroes is beautiful. I’ll even admit I teared up a few times while wishing my sister and I had gotten along like that as kids, the chemistry between the two is so natural and heartfelt. Shout-out to McGraw, who often steals the show as the warm humor of the film in the hilarious ways she questions the existence of God, talks back to cops and stands up for her brother. The Black Phone has that sort of Stand by Me energy in that it presents a grim coming of age story with heart, in which kids are attempting to answer the call of adulthood amidst a brutal world (albeit a much darker one in this tale).
Where The Black Phone fumbles the receiver a bit is that, like calling a credit card company and getting a machine on the other end, it doesn’t provide all of the answers and that can certainly be frustrating. So many of the questions that arise during the film go unanswered that it feels as if pieces are missing. That’s not always a negative, villains are often better when we don’t know much about them, but I wouldn’t blame you if you felt the script acts a little conveniently or hand-wavey in the way certain elements unfold. Still, engaging characters and a loudly ringing tension are enough to look past some of the more bothersome aspects of the story.
For all of its dread, The Black Phone doesn’t pack quite the amount of nightmare-inducing terror some of you may be expecting from the team behind Sinister, but it’s no doubt a Grade A crowd-pleaser that delivers on all of the chills and thrills it promises. Pick up The Black Phone. It’s a scream.
The Black Phone arrives in theaters June 24th from Universal and Blumhouse.
By Matt Konopka