When The Black Phone premiered at Fantastic Fest in September 2021, the hype levels were reaching 3000; it sounded like all the right pieces had come together to give us the next great horror hit from Blumhouse Productions. Scott Derrickson, after taking a detour to launch the mystic arts of the MCU with Doctor Strange, returns to his roots in the horror genre to direct an adaptation of the Joe Hill short story. To make this reunion a Trifecta, Derrickson and Blum have also brought back Ethan Hawke who starred in Sinister for them; this time he’s playing something we’ve never seen him do before.
Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of Scott Derrickson’s horror films despite their popularity; his biggest claims to fame are Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. He was originally set to helm the follow up to his own MCU entry, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (listen to my review here), but he gave it up to pursue his passion project in adapting The Black Phone. So that devotion, coupled with the glowing reactions from the festival circuit, and the studio shifting the film to a summer release, had me very hype for this latest cinematic entry. Did it live up to the hype?
Get in the Van
This fearful tale takes place in the the late 1970’s in a lower class suburban neighborhood. Finney (Mason Thames) is a soft spoken boy who is constantly getting bullied at school, but hey, he’s got a heck of a pitching arm in baseball. His sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is an out spoken girl who’s afraid of nothing and has apparently inherited medium like powers while she sleeps from her deceased mother. At home, they both struggle with a physically and mentally abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies, always excels at playing a troubled dirt bag). To make matters worse, there’s a serial killer on the loose abducting young boys in the neighborhood, never to be found.
The Grabber, as the kids of the neighborhood affectionately dubbed him, snatches up several kids that Finney knows including a good friend. As you can guess, our quiet boy with a heart of gold ends up being the next victim. He just had to help this charming fella you see above with a van full of black balloons (The Grabber’s calling card he leaves at the scenes). Finney is now locked in a soundproof basement with The Grabber trying to trick him into playing his favorite game, Naughty Boy. Inside the house, The Grabber always wears a demonic mask to taunt his prey. He takes off various pieces throughout the film to reveal different sections of his face (they’re all very creepy) while toying with Finney.
In his cell below the ground Finney has nothing but concrete walls, a mattress, a toilet, and an old disconnected black phone mounted to the wall. Finney is in a hopeless place with the impossible task of breaking out of this room, with a personified demon waiting for him outside the door. This is where the title comes into play as he begins to receive mysterious calls on that black phone. On the other end of the line? The spirits of The Grabber’s previous victims. These spirits share their experiences in the house with Finney to try and connect the tools needed to escape his predicament. On the outside, his sister Gwen is tapping into her suppressed dream medium abilities in a desperate attempt to find her brother.
The Faces of Fear
The marketing for the film is largely based around Ethan Hawke as The Grabber and for good reason. He gives a chilling performance that will stick with you for a long time, despite the fact that he spends the vast majority of the picture behind a terrifying mask. The work he does with his eyes alone will give Michael Keaton a run for his money. Notably, in his 30+ year career, this is Hawke’s first foray into playing a villain which he previously always refused to do. This is actually the second time he’s done this in 2022, but he shot this film before Marvel’s Moon Knight. Scott Derrickson’s vision really sold him on breaking that rule and the film world is all the better for it. My one complaint about Ethan Hawke is that despite the marketing, we really don’t get to see him that often in the film. He’s utilized more like the shark in Jaws, popping in from time to time to make your heart race.
Thames does a great job of playing the every boy with the heart and will that never fails. He has to deal with some pretty broad range in this picture, and I can’t imagine it was easy to act opposite Hawke playing a disgusting child murderer in a satan mask. McGraw as Gwen is the real stand out for me in this film. She exudes so much range; from wondrous confidence, desperate hope, excruciating physical pain, emotional distress, you name it and she knocks it out of the park. Both these young actors have a bright future in the industry but I’ll be keeping a close eye on her trajectory in particular.
Fear the Hype
So now to answer the question, did it live up to the hype? I will say that I did enjoy the film and can’t really pick apart any choices made that I disagreed with. The performances are all stellar, there’s an immense amount of style (really dig the opening credits), and the story/plot is fascinating. So why am I not over the moon about it? It actually has nothing to do with the content of the picture but in the release itself.
Riding the high of the festival circuit, Universal released the first trailer for the movie in fall 2021. I had read up on the film and was anticipating the release of the first footage to connect what the hype was all about. After seeing it I had 2 thoughts:
- Okay yeah that looks pretty great can’t wait to see it
- I’m pretty sure they just showed the entire movie in that trailer
I’m sad to say that the latter was true. This is a deep seeded problem with a lot of film marketing and typically speaking I will try my damndest to not see anything past the 1st trailer for a particular film to avoid seeing too much. But as I previously mentioned, this was the FIRST trailer, 8 months before the picture was to release. There was no reason at all to show as much as they did. When both me and my wife can look at each other after seeing it and have the same reaction, it’s usually true. It’s incredibly frustrating and unfortunately it took a lot away from my experience.
Again, I’m not knocking the content of the film at all, it’s very well made. It’s just frustrating when the stakes are removed from so many instances of Finney’s escape because I know “well he hasn’t met that spirit from the trailer yet that teaches him how to do xyz.” I know for a fact had I not already seen so many wonderful reveals from the first trailer last year, I would have deeply loved this experience. Get it together Hollywood!
If you love horror, creepy things, 90 minutes of anxiety, or Ethan Hawke you will absolutely love The Black Phone. If you haven’t seen the trailers, don’t, walk in completely blind and have a really unique horror experience at the box office. For me, the lack of surprises just watered it down a little bit below excellent. I give it 7 black balloons out of 10.