What to Watch Verdict
The Black Phone is as horrifying as Sinister through different means and stars Ethan Hawke in a phenomenally despicable role.
Does the scary-spookies right
Takes the time to establish stakes
Ethan Hawke goes bad so well
Finds a way to highlight paranormal terrors and true crime simplicity
Some might not like how much time it takes to get "horrific"
Balances many plates and one or two might wobble at times
The horrors of Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s The Black Phone are on par with the duo’s decade-defining nightmare Sinister, albeit for different reasons. Their Joe Hill adaptation embraces spectral haunts after the second act intensifies, as 70s suburbia hardships — alcoholic parents, bloody-knuckled bullies — usher in a serial killer’s stranglehold over a small town.
Sinister valued the art of every scare as the demonic Baaghul torments Ethan Hawke’s mindfully broken writer. The Black Phone, meanwhile, allows Hawke to stalk and terrify as the child-snatching “Grabber,” a villain of our earthly realm. The films couldn’t be more narratively at odds and yet their cores are so interconnected — children fight for survival, others become ghosts and grainy home videos present information in a stick-to-your-brain manner.
Mason Thames stars as 13-year-old Finney Shaw, a late 1970s North Denver boy who is the target of bullies and lives under a liquored-up single father’s violent care (Jeremy Davies as the bleary-eyed Mr. Shaw). As if childhood wasn’t hard enough, other male classmates Finney’s age continue to vanish as The Grabber — a local kidnapper and murderer — continues his nightmarish spree. Finney doesn’t dare utter the psychopath’s name, but that doesn’t keep him safe.
One Friday afternoon after school, Finney is abducted by The Grabber and locked in a dingy soundproof basement. The only tool Finney has is a black rotary phone with a snipped line, but it still rings. When it does, the voices of past victims try to help Finney be the one who defeats The Grabber once and for all.
The Black Phone is a balancing act. Derrickson and Cargill must establish Finney as an all-American boy who’s timid yet withholds strength; we must believe he’s soft enough to be petrified and capable enough to evolve when pushed to the brink. Finney’s rebellious sister Gwen — played tremendously by Madeleine McGraw — is the stronger of the two. She bashes "jackasses" and curses like a sailor, but she also inherited her mother’s premonition powers.
The first act-and-a-half mirrors Richard Linklater movies — little league games, "Free Ride" needle drops and household dramas that shed tears. It’s all necessary table setting before Finney enters the mental and physical gauntlet that is Grabber’s subterranean lockbox, but it does eat away at the film’s duration.
Lesser films have stumbled when attempting to piece together the human elements of their horror tales. The Black Phone succeeds because of the lengths taken to ensure Finney, Gwen and even The Grabber are familiarized before evil strikes.
Derrickson’s gives Hawke all the weapons necessary for an out-of-bounds, unsettling performance. The Grabber’s toys with Finney in an "immersive" game called "Naughty Boy" — leaving the cellar door open, grasping a belt in hopes Finney tries to escape — which parallels Finney’s own father’s relentless beating of him and Gwen. Derrickson and Cargill draw upon scars from their childhood to create the monster that Ethan Hawke plays repulsively well. So much is conveyed only through The Grabber’s eyes from behind a devilish mask with either a smile or frown, but that’s all Hawke needs. He loses himself to the deranged mindset of a serial madman whose perspective has been poisoned by adolescent mistreatment and who now causes pain as a way to soothe his own traumas.
In simpler terms, Ethan Hawke doesn’t typically wade into malevolent waters, but The Black Phone is a testament to an actor saving this beast within for a grand reveal.
Through it all, The Black Phone still embraces fantastical horrors outside true crime molds. Every time the phone rings and Finney presses the receiver to his ear, the air grows cold and anxiousness overtakes. A collection of lost souls recall their experiences and aid Finney by dropping clues, all of which expand the dank, moldy basement confines.
Gwen’s role as the paranormalist who dreams about kids before their "grabbings" are not part of Joe Hill’s original short story, but allows for the haunted elements of The Black Phone to shine. Her visions are reminiscent of Sinister, yet never become a recreation of the movie that helped establish Blumhouse as a genre powerhouse.
Derrickson’s shot selection is just as crucial as Thames’ breakout performance or Hawke’s imposing turn from behind a macabre magician’s smirk. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz works with Derrickson to frame with devious purpose, whether blocking figures just out of view or outlining The Grabber as he stands in the doorway holding a tray with scrambled eggs and Sprite.
It sounds like an obvious statement, but Derrickson only allows you to see what he wants you to see — no better example than The Grabber frozen in the shadows, speaking in one tone of voice (example: happy), then emerging into the revealing light wearing an unmatching mask (example: angry).
Derrickson is so confident, meticulous and methodical that no inch of screen goes to waste. The Grabber’s basement feels larger than a mansion and yet smaller than the casket from Buried. What a trick and treat.
The Black Phone is a more proficient display of innocence robbed than Summer Of ‘84 or The Boy Behind The Door. Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill pour themselves into a vulnerable and very frightening kidnapping thriller that shows the many ways horror filmmakers can scare their audience. Mason Thames stands eye-to-eye with Ethan Hawke’s sickly snatcher, both stealing scenes from each other as their mind games escalate. Sequences will make you laugh as Madeleine McGraw cusses out Jesus then choke back tears as Jeremy Davies lashes McGraw’s rump raw as a punishment.
The Black Phone is a multifaceted horror story that frightens, devastates and still remains hopeful throughout. A total package tale that proves the kids aren’t alright — but they will be, despite all the atrocious behaviors we force them to face.
The Black Phone was screened as part of the 2022 Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans. It releases exclusively in movie theaters on June 24.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.