By Jason Delgado
Warning: light spoilers
The Black Phone starts off like any other film set in the late ‘70’s, with Edgar Winter’s infectiously joyous song “Free Ride” blaring, while children are riding bikes and playing baseball. We soon see a missing poster for the boy who was just pitching in the game, signaling that something is amiss. This isn’t the normal, carefree depiction of the disco era that we are used to in most movies. Instead, it is dark and gritty, with the central characters (kids) being bullied and beaten, while a maniac nicknamed The Grabber is on the loose. This kind of eerie atmosphere is one of the essential elements in making a horror masterpiece, which is exactly what The Black Phone is.
The film is a slow burn, working on character building and the aforementioned atmosphere, as the tension of the horror element rises to a crescendo during the finale. The Black Phone has the feel of being based on a great Stephen King novel, which is fitting because it’s actually based on a short story written by his son, Joe Hill (a great writer in his own right). The Grabber was originally a clown in the story, but director Scott Derrickson wisely changed that detail in the movie due to its close parallel to King’s infamous Pennywise.
Another element that I love about this film is that despite its dark tone, it is filled with heart, which is unusual in the horror genre. The young stellar cast, led by Mason Thames as Finney Shaw, and Madeleine McGraw as his sister Gwen, as well as writer C. Robert Cargill and co-writer Derrickson, does a masterful job of making the audience care for these kids. The brother and sister duo make a great team with whom we laugh and feel pain together as an audience, because of the detailed writing and amazing performances (including of the supporting cast, such as MIguel Cazarez Mora playing the protective friend, Robin).
Horror masterpieces need a terrifying villain to be effective, and Ethan Hawke provides just that as The Grabber. The Gen X star has given us many fine performances over the years, with Boyhood, Before Sunrise, Gattaca, and Reality Bites to name a few of my favorites, but he really shows his range in The Black Phone. We got a taste of Hawke’s villainous side in Moon Knight, but he goes full-on psycho in this movie, and it’s a creepy joy to watch. His mysterious nature lets the fear grow in the audience’s minds, while the little that we do know is frightening enough.
There is a supernatural element to The Black Phone, and it is used quite effectively as a tool to build terror and character, in an escape room type of setting. The fantastic filmmaking team of Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill is really hitting their creative stride, after already bringing us phenomenal films such as the first Doctor Strange. I felt a Rocky-like exhilaration, with a rush of emotion and just wanting to yell out, “Hell yeah!” That is a rare, fun quality that only exceptional films can bring.
I give The Black Phone five out of five hot sauce packets. It is so hot that it will melt Pennywise’s face off.