A Welcome Return to Low Budget Horror From Director Scott Derrickson
DIRECTED BY SCOTT DERRICKSON / 2022
I don’t know if The Black Phone is the scariest movie of 2022 or not, but it surely has to be one of the creepiest. Anchored by solid performances (and at least one off-the-leash one) and Scott Derrickson’s skillful direction, The Black Phone is a gripping tale of suspense, supernatural intervention, and revenge from beyond the grave.
Mason Thames stars as Finney, a slight 13-year-old of the sort that is always being picked on for one reason or another. He has some measure of protection from his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who’s not afraid to mix it up with bullies despite her small size, and his tough friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora). Robin’s protection lasts only up until the moment when Robin is taken by a kidnapper who’s been terrorizing this small Colorado neighborhood, known only as the Grabber.
The Grabber is played by Ethan Hawke (who worked with Derrickson before in Sinister). Hawke has eschewed villainous roles in the past, but with this and the recently released Moon Knight series, it seems he has softened his stance on that somewhat. And based on his performance here, that’s a good thing. Hawke has clearly discovered the joy of playing the bad guy and he’s able to use his soft, thoughtful screen presence to suggest layers of menace only hinted at on the surface (which, to be fair, contains plenty of menace all its own).
Finney is himself captured by the Grabber, who keeps his victims in a sparse basement cell with only a mattress and a wall-mounted phone for company. The phone (the titular black phone) is broken and its wire cut, so when Finney hears it ringing, it’s a bit of a surprise. On the line are the voices of the Grabber’s previous victims. They can barely remember their past lives, but they do know the Grabber must be stopped and they want to provide Finney guidance to enable him to stop the kidnapper.
Meanwhile, Gwen is searching for clues to Finney’s whereabouts in hopes of rescuing her brother. Gwen has been ‘gifted’ with a form of ESP, whereby she receives visions in her dreams. She can’t control these visions, and her father (a deliriously unhinged Jeremy Davies looking like a refugee from a Charles Manson look alike contest) beats her whenever she admits to having one. Still, she believes these visions are Finney’s best hope and she prays to Jesus and whatever saints will listen to grant her one that will help.
The real stars of this show are Thames and especially McGraw, who easily runs off with every scene she’s in. When the visions she prays for aren’t forthcoming, Gwen curses Jesus out with the same exasperated tone of a parent who’s just watched their child happily dump their plate of food onto the floor. In another scene, Gwen throws herself into a physical melee to save her brother (who’s just lost his guardian angel to the Grabber) from schoolyard bullies. She can’t physically stand up to them, but that doesn’t keep her from trying.
Between the ghostly visitors helping Finney navigate his captivity and Gwen’s attempts to divine his whereabouts there’s a lot going on in The Black Phone. But the script by Derrickson and his frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill doesn’t feel overstuffed, and the movie keeps a brisk pace over the course of its 102 minute runtime. Derrickson’s direction maintains a growing sense of dread throughout, punctuated by the occasional jump scare. Having left the followup sequel to his Doctor Strange, Derrickson finds himself on solid ground with this sure-footed return to low-budget horror.