Penned by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, this Derrickson-directed adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a refreshingly unpretentious and relatively unambitious thriller. “Unambitious” isn’t usually intended as a compliment, but the film’s matter-of-fact storytelling and unwillingness to subvert its narrative or character arcs for blindsiding twists and turns are among its strongest attributes. It is immersed in rich period detail and specificity and is in no rush to get to the trailer shots. Moreover, it feels no need to try and outsmart the audience or overly explain its fantastical/supernatural elements. The “what you see is what you get” structure allows the filmmakers to focus on enriching their characters and on telling a simple story as well as possible.
I talk a lot about how one of the elements (at least pre-Covid) for a successful adult-skewing studio programmer is having a simple high concept, and I can do a “plot summary” of The Black Phone in a single sentence. A young boy (Mason Thames) is abducted by a child murderer (Ethan Hawke) only to discover that his prison contains a disconnected phone which receives phone calls from “The Grabber’s” previous victims. Yes, we also get the kid’s younger sister (Madeleine McGraw is a scene-stealing, star-making performance) whose apparent psychic powers supply clues to the murderer’s identity, but that’s about it. We get an entire act before the “inciting incident,” which gives the movie time to build its characters and its setting beyond just period piece nostalgia.
Finney is dealing with bullies and nursing crushes, while Gwen’s scary visions unleash fury within their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies) as the broader town reckons with a series of child murders that (obviously) has everyone on edge. The block-building is so engrossing as a straight-up drama that it almost risks disappointment when Finney “finally” gets snatched up and driven away to his likely doom. As the post-abduction narrative can’t help but be a little repetitive (since our protagonist is stuck in a single sparse basement interior), it’s to the film’s advantage that we only get around an hour (the film runs a lean 102 minutes) in that core circumstance. That also means we get plenty of old-school character development and storytelling.
The final 70 minutes or so are refreshingly matter-of-fact. That’s not to say the film is predictable, there’s at least one plot point (no spoilers) that I suppose counts as a ghoulish twist, but it treats its plotting, even the fantastical elements, as slice-of-life reality. I did not realize before seeing it that it was based on a short story by Stephen King’s son, but that entirely tracks, and I mean that as a compliment. The film treats the violence and fantasy not as “the reason for the season” but as intrusions upon this character study and in conflict with these otherwise “regular people” and their regular lives. You’re absolutely “rooting against action,” which is almost essential for a successful horror title.
Ethan Hawke spends most of its screen time wearing a creepy mask and makes a point not to dominate the proceedings or overpower the movie. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, we get any sexual threats immediately taken off the table, and in both cases, that’s more about comforting the audience than the kidnapped protagonist. Hawke has little in the way of clever dialogue or quippy one-liners, instead offering a relatively plausible real-world villain. Thames also offers an unusually vulnerable leading turn, leaving McGraw to just plow through the movie with the kind of spitfire turn that will make her an audience favorite. Without feeling out of place, the kid offers copious R-rated profanity with such comically disdainful venom that, yes, I would compare her to Dennis Farina.
The Black Phone works not because it’s filled with jump scares or grotesque images (although it earns its R-rating) but because it’s about peril being visited upon characters we grow to like before the danger strikes. It’s about dealing with trauma without using that in-vogue theme to justify a lack of production value or onscreen entertainment value. Even its finale, no spoilers, puts character and themes over twists and turns, while the whole “kidnapped kid talks to now-dead former victims” gimmick eventually lead to the film’s emotional and (especially for a horror film) crowd-pleasing climax. By not trying to outsmart or confuse its audience, The Black Phone concentrates on what matters and delivers just terrific big-screen entertainment. It’s the best theatrical horror flick since Malignant.
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The Black Phone (2022)
Blumhouse Productions/rated R/102 minutes
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Produced by Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Based on Joe Hill’s The Black Phone
Starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone and Ethan Hawke
Cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, Edited by Frédéric Thoraval and Music by Mark Korven
Opening theatrically courtesy of Universal on June 24
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