"The Black Phone" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
Ethan Hawke has always done a great job of playing the protagonist or the mysterious man that women fall head over heels for throughout his filmography. From films like "Before Sunrise" to "Training Day", it was hard to imagine Hawke in a role where he plays the terrifying villain or as a character radically different from what he is used to playing. That's why it was interesting when he was shown as the Grabber in the film adaptation of Joe Hill's short story, "The Black Phone". The promo images and trailers displayed Hawke as a terrifying kidnapper whose face is hidden behind a horrifying mask, preying on the kids in his town. What we received was another terrific horror film from Scott Derrickson that told a suspenseful story that kept viewers on the edge of their seats.
In the first few moments of the film, the viewer learns that there is a man going around the town and kidnapping innocent little kids in 1978. Many of them still have missing posters stapled to poles and fences around town, but to no avail. This puts the whole community on edge, and little Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) are living smack in the middle of it. Finney is not too worried about the kidnappings, as he has to worry about not being beaten up by bullies or his abusive father (Jeremy Davies). However, Gwen, on the other hand, is able to see the kidnappings and the Grabber in her dreams, which she uses to help the police try to find this horrible man.
Even though he is not worried about being kidnapped, Finney lets his guard down, and helps a man who turns out to be the notorious serial killer. Now trapped in an underground basement with this terrifying man who preys on his victims, he must find a way out. The only thing he has to help him is a disconnected black phone on the wall, which rings and rings until the person answers it. When Finney does finally answer the phone, he comes face-to-face with the kids who were murderer prior to him, all trying to help Finney escape so he doesn't end up like them.
The best thing about this movie, without a doubt, is Hawke's terrifying performance. The viewer has never seen Hawke like this before, and it makes you uncomfortable to see him like this and the way he acts towards Finney. In a way, the viewer dreads every time that he comes on screen because it seems like he just gets crazier and crazier with every appearance from him. However, he is what really sells this movie, and is the factor that makes this movie work so well.
At the same time, unlike Derrickson's previous horror film, "Sinister", this movie relies more on the creepiness factor, rather than the use of multiple jump scares and increasingly horrifying music. He is able to put the viewer in Finney's place, and it seems like we as a viewer are going through the same exact thing the young boy is going through. Derrickson is able to sell this idea and this horror he strikes into the audience by using mental tactics rather than the old fashioned jump scare, which I think shows how he is a master of horror and suspense.
However, though, when Derrickson does add the jump scares into the film, they catch the viewer off guard and strike a fear into them that will make their heart beat out of their chest. There is one jump scare in the film, which I will not mention what happens so I do not spoil the movie, that made everyone in the theater I was in jump out of their seats. It was a tame jump scare compared to many other horror films, but Derrickson was able to time it perfectly and add the perfect cut in music to scare the audience and keep them on edge. The movie had a very steady pace and tone until it reached the point of that one jump scare, and it seemed like Derrickson changed the film, both tonally and pace-wise, to make it a much darker and scarier picture.
Hill, the author of the short story, is the son of famous horror author Stephen King, and you can definitely see the influence that both Hill and Derrickson had from the horror legend. This movie feels very much like a King novel come to life, and I think it does almost everything perfectly and is able to tell a horrifying movie that will strike fear into the hearts of audiences both young and old.