Cinematic Releases: The Black Phone (2022) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
When Scott Derrickson isn’t working for the MCU which began with Doctor Strange before ending abruptly after starting and ending work on what became Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, he’s usually known for doing demonic horror fare ala The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister and more recently Deliver Us from Evil.  After parting ways with the Multiverse of Madness, Derrickson redirected his attention back to horror with the Ethan Hawke starring supernatural Blumhouse child kidnapping thriller The Black Phone, opening in theaters tomorrow.  While suffering from some of the same shortcomings as the aforementioned devil horror flicks he served up before, The Black Phone winds up being worth the wait and easily the scariest of the bunch.

Based on an original short story of the same name by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, the film follows Finney (Mason Thames), a 1978 grade school student living in the home of a domineering abusive alcoholic father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) in suburban Colorado who notices his friends and classmates are turning up missing.  Scoffing off claims of psychic dreams Gwen is experiencing about a masked killer abducting the children, Finney is on his way home from school one day when a black van and a magician with a clown faced mask known as ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) pulls over and abducts the boy.  Locked in a soundproof basement with a disconnected black phone and seemingly no escape, Finney soon starts receiving phone calls from the Grabber’s former victims who want to try and help him escape.
When it dabbles in psychic dreams and clairvoyance it tugs on the silly meter just a little bit but I was able to suspend my disbelief just enough to get caught up in this otherwise genuinely frightening serial killer child kidnapping horror show.  Think of it as The Night of the Hunter by way of The Poughkeepsie Tapes and just enough of a youthful cast of grade schoolers to push it into Stranger Things land.  Mason Thames, fresh off of the television series For All Mankind makes his big screen debut here in pretty much the leading role and he carries himself very well for a first timer.  It also makes us believe in the realism of the character by not putting a child star in the part.

The one who comes into this movie and walks away with it all by himself however is Ethan Hawke, aided by several terrifying masks designed by legendary make up effects artist Tom Savini.  Throughout the movie we see the masks change with either the top part revealing the eyes or the bottom part revealing the mouth at different times.  All and all, each time you see Hawke doing a childlike precious falsetto voice in a thorny horned demon mask, it is enough to make your skin crawl.  Moreover, the uncertainty of The Grabber’s intentions are particularly harrowing like a scene when he comes into the locked room and a starved Finney demands food to which The Grabber replies he only came down to look at him before promptly leaving. 
Incidentally shot by Stranger Things and Scream cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz in appropriately dimly lit panoramic widescreen evoking the contrast between the outside world and the enclosed basement prison, The Black Phone is shot and blocked beautifully with more than a few decisive camera pans that made the audience shriek.  Equally wild is the brooding electronic score by Mark Korven though the use of Pink Floyd’s On the Run during a particularly tense scene might be the most inspired use of The Dark Side of the Moon in recent cinematic memory. 

A solid horror effort sure to keep you on the edge of your seat with one of the scariest horror heavies by a well known and regarded actor in some time, The Black Phone while silly at times is a good thriller that will get a few of your hairs standing on end.  Easily the scariest and most fully realized picture yet from Scott Derrickson who made the right decision to depart from Doctor Strange to focus on this, The Black Phone is an inspired and frightening mixture of The Silence of the Lambs, Prisoners and just a hint of Sam Raimi’s The Gift thrown in for good measure.  Horror fans are likely to have a blast with this one!

--Andrew Kotwicki