THE BLACK PHONE (2022)
Thriller takes place in 1978 in a working-class suburb of Denver, Colorado. It focuses on Finny Shaw (Mason Thames) who has enough problems with school bullies and an alcoholic father, but there is also a series of child abductions being committed by a mysterious individual the press has dubbed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Finny is kidnaped himself by the masked serial killer and finds himself locked in a sound-proof basement. The boy gets help from unusual sources as a disconnected phone in his prison bares the voices of previous victims and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who shares her late mother’s gift for clairvoyance, tries to help police find him. Is it enough to keep Finny from being The Grabber’s next victim?
The Black Phone is directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) from his script with C. Robert Cargill, based on Joe Hill’s short story. Derrickson smartly gives us a little time to get to know Finny, and his life at the moment, so we are endeared to him when Hawke’s creepy Grabber abducts him. We then intercut between Finney receiving phone messages from beyond, while police search for him with Gwen trying to help through her dream visions. It could have gotten silly quick with both a psychic sister and phone calls from dead kids on the menu, but Derrickson keeps it chilling and tense as Finny tries to find a way to escape. It also helps that Hawke’s Grabber is a disturbing yet grounded psycho who never goes over the top or falls into camp. He remains calm most of the time and that’s scarier. Derrickson only falters by once again letting James Ransone play a borderline goofy character that disrupts the serious tone and overdoing it a bit with his grainy footage schtick, which seems to be the only reason the film is set in the 70s. Gwen’s visions appear like old grainy film stock a la Sinister’s old film footage sequences. It doesn’t fit in as well here. Otherwise, this is a well-crafted thriller with some good lead performances and a worthy confrontation between victim and villain were certain puzzle pieces also fall into place.
The cast are mostly good with a very strong performance by young Mason Thames as Finny. Finny is resilient and smart, but a bit meek at times, despite showing there is some strength inside him. He and Hawke work very well together. Hawke is very good here and once again proves he is a versatile and underrated actor. His Grabber is low key and calm and that makes him all the scarier as he appears confident and in control, despite being obviously very twisted and deranged. Madeline McGraw is also excellent as the apparently psychic Gwen. She’s a tough and sometimes foul-mouthed little girl but determined to find her brother. A very strong performance from the young actress. Not so impressive is James Ranson as Max. This is a goofy and almost unnecessary character, and it interrupts the tension when his goofball antics are on screen. Also weak is Jeremy Davies as the siblings’ alcoholic father Terrance. The character simply should have been stronger and more threatening, thus his change to sympathetic would have been more impressive later on. Otherwise, a good cast!
Overall, this was a solid thriller with some impactful violence and some suspenseful moments. There were some strong performances from the leads, which helps make the more supernatural elements here work. There were a few supporting character missteps, but Hawke and Thames portrayed strong characters that made them good adversaries. An effective and tense thriller from the Doctor Strange director.
Rated 3 (out of 4) wall phones