This will be a weird way to start a review, but there’s a part of me that’s mixed on how I feel about Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill departing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. On one hand, though I enjoyed the Marvel Studios romp, I can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been if they had stayed on board to write and direct. On the other, and most importantly, I’m glad they were able to leave, because it meant that we got The Black Phone — honestly one of my favorite movies this year so far!
In a crowded marketplace where louder and more heavily marketed blockbusters like Jurassic World and Thor will have more fanfare, my biggest hope is that audiences will discover The Black Phone and give it the legs to carry it into becoming a major blockbuster. Because the most beautiful thing about the film is how good it truly is. Yes, it’s easy to write this off as a typical horror movie, but much like Andy Muschietti’s blockbuster, IT (2017), it’s a horror movie second, and a coming of age movie first.
To summarize the plot, in 1978, two siblings, Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) Shaw have a complicated childhood dealing with bullies and their troubled alcoholic father. Finney is a shy and sensitive boy, while Gwen is a hell of a fire cracker with clairvoyant dreams. Matters in their lives become more complicated as young boys in their neighborhood begin to disappear; kidnapped by a child abductor and serial killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Unfortunately, one day, Finney finds himself a victim of the psychopath, and is imprisoned in a basement with nothing but a mattress, a toilet, and a mysterious black phone that he is told isn’t operational. However, as Gwen tries desperately to find and save her brother, Finney begins to receive mysterious calls on The Black Phone that may or may not be the key to helping him escape and survive his captor.
After delivering really terrific work on films like the first Sinister and the first Doctor Strange, Derrickson and long-time writing partner, Cargill have beautifully adapted author Joe Hill’s tale into a movie that’s not about jump scares or gore, but about finding the strength and hope to persist, even in the most desperate and dire of situations. As such, they are ultimately proving that they are only getting better with age. The Black Phone is hands down Derrickson’s most mature film as a director. Thematically he is able to explore the hardships of growing up, the tolls of grief and bullying on a person, and the strength of family and (to a degree) faith, all in a terrifically scary, tight, and tense 102-minute runtime. And it all lands without sacrificing what makes the movie a “Scott Derrickson” film. In fact he uses his director trademarks in ways that he’s never done before in his movies, to enhance the emotional core of the film. Never once does anything feel like a cheap trick or gimmick.
For example, one of the personal pieces of “Derrickson flair” he adds to the film are the “grainy home-movie” style moments he injected into Sinister. But here they are used in a completely different context and tone. In his earlier work, the home movie style was used to provide a gory, messed up sense of fear and foreboding as Ethan Hawke’s, character Ellison Oswalt, investigates the horrific murders committed in his home. In The Black Phone, however, the style narratively provides a function to distinguish between visions Gwen is having versus what’s happening in real time, but emotionally provides a much more somber look at the innocent lives The Grabber has taken. As if we’re watching the home movies of the lives of these children playing out before our eyes. This thus allows the audience to know who these characters are in a few brief seconds each, and enables us to connect to them so their loss is felt, and our fears for Finn are reinforced. The tragedy goes beyond the fact that they’re children; it hits deeper because these are kids we are given the opportunity to know to a degree through those small but significant sequences. It is beautifully well done, and no other filmmaker could have done this the same way.
And it’s through those sorts of elements, as well as a growing sense of tension, that a compelling character arc takes shape for Thames’ Finney. From the very beginning of the movie we get a character with a good heart, but a reluctance to stand up for himself. And given the horrible situation that befalls him, he has to find the strength to endure the worst life has to offer. And that is the real story of the film, which is beautiful and somber in and of itself.
And much like Del Toro’s Crimson Peak or The Sixth Sense, the ghost story subgenre and the horror aspects, such as the surface level narrative about a killer and a victim, are all there to service the story of two kids forced to grow up during a time where the challenges in their lives are the worst. The ghosts elevate Finney’s character. And the elements of every single one of the conversations Finney has with them not only help push the serial killer plotline forward, like pieces of a narrative puzzle, but also foster the growth of Finney’s character.
Gwen’s character arc has less of a focus in the movie, and as such is slightly less impactful. But it’s still a strong one in and of itself, with her character also evolving during the film without ever becoming the victim. She has to deal with the fact that she was born with her psychic abilities. And even though her father rejects them (due to an emotional, heart-wrenching reason), she is forced to accept them herself, as they might be the only asset they have in finding the one character in her life she loves more than anyone. Her faith is tested, but her spirit never breaks, and that ultimately helps the character endure just as her brother is doing in a much more dire situation.
Both of these character arcs require some incredible performances, and thankfully, Derrickson has found himself a pair of aces in Thames and McGraw. This is Thames’ feature film debut, and he knocks it out of the park. It’s easy to find victims in horror films grating. But you never get this with Thames’ performance, because of how sympathetic he plays the character. His ability to straddle the line between vulnerable, but smart and capable at the same time never allows you to perceive the character as weak or pathetic. And that is what the best horror film protagonists are: not victims, but true heroes.
This is also true of McGraw, who is equal parts hilarious and completely lovable the instant you meet her, from her spirited quip deliveries to her aggressive attitude and spark! To watch these two young actors bounce off each other with their stellar performances makes the bond their characters share feel absolutely real and palpable. Even when they aren’t in scenes together, that relationship is so strong because of the life they injected into these characters. Even when they are separated, you can still feel their chemistry.
Hawke, on the other hand, gives one of the most chilling and disturbing performances of his career (and keep in mind that includes another turn as a psychotic cult leader trying to unleash a soul sucking Egyptian deity from an awesome superhero show earlier this year). Throughout the film, I don’t think you ever witness his full face. It’s usually covered partially by a mask or early on, covered in face paint and sunglasses. And as such, you ever see “nice-guy Handsome Hawke.” Combined with his transformative performance, all you see is the demented Grabber.
Hawke imbues the character with one part Michael Jackson, and another part John Wayne Gacy, equating to a menacing, disturbing individual that will leave you worried for Finney the full runtime. One scene with him threatening to strangle Finney with his own intestines is particularly spine-tingling. What’s worse is we know something is wrong with this character to possess him to do the awful things he does. But we never find out anything about him through the course of this film, which, similar to characters like Heath Ledger’s Joker or Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, makes him all the more creepy, and one of the most memorable horror villains in years.
There are also terrific supporting turns from Derrickson mainstay James Ransone, who provides a lot of terrific comic relief as an amateur coke-addicted crime solver trying to impress the police with his clue board, and Emmy-winner Jeremy Davies, who plays the alcoholic father of Finney and Gwen. Davies in particular is quite effective given that he gives what could easily be written off as an archetypical alcoholic a bit more of complex soul. The character of Mr. Shaw loves his kids and wants to be better, but has been destroyed by his grief over his wife’s loss. It’s a strong performance that’s only undercut by the fact that there are slightly stronger performances in the film from Hawke, Thames, and McGraw.
Also of note is the terrific score courtesy of Mark Korven, composer behind The Lighthouse and The Witch. Korven’s score adds to a lot of the tension, but also at times evokes the classical scores of horror films from the Carpenter era, with movies like the original Halloween. It’s creepy and haunting, but also fits the vibe of the film’s setting. There’s also a terrific selection of excellent soundtrack choices from Derrickson himself, including songs like “Fox on the Run” and others that give the film the right authentic ‘70s feel.
In terms of having any outright criticisms, I’ll say it’s hard to nitpick about a movie that I found completely engaging from beginning to end. Especially since Derrickson and Cargill know this genre inside and out, and are able to speak to the right and wrong ways to approach avoiding horror cliches. For the most part, they know how to immerse you into the shoes of its protagonist, in this case Finney, and answer any cynical questions an audience member would raise about trying to escape this situation by having Finney do the same thing they’re thinking. There’s perhaps one or two scenes that don’t quite succeed at this, but it’s otherwise very cleanly and professionally done.
As such, I simply cannot recommend The Black Phone enough. It’s Scott Derrickson’s best film to date, the best ghost story put to film since The Sixth Sense, and one of my favorite films of the year. I urge anyone looking for just a really good and solid movie to seek it out, but be warned, it may not be the jump-scare filled cheese fest many other horror films are. This is smartly done, emotional horror, and also a very somber, but ultimately hopeful film that will have you fully engaged from the first frame to the last.
Overall Score: A-
The Black Phone hits theaters June 24th.