June 26, 2022

“The Black Phone” is a Call Worth Taking (Review)

Seeing The Black Phone got me thinking about prevalent pop culture elements like the Hunger Games, which is centered around child murder, and how people would feel about them depending on your status as a parent. I’m not a parent, but I do plan to be one day, and I’m interested to see if my outlook on these types of stories will change, and if I will develop an aversion to them.

Objectively, the acts depicted in these types of films and novels are terrible things to witness and comprehend, but it’s only proof that the death and abuse of children have been harnessed and overused by pop culture as a method of enhancing shock factor and drawing in an audience — which, of course, is ironic, given the amounts of people (namely parents) that this type of story immediately repulses.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

But you didn’t come here for a societal discussion, you came for a review of The Black Phone, the latest low-budget gem from horror giant Blumhouse. It re-teams writer/director duo Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill with accomplished performer Ethan Hawke, in a rather disturbing tale in which Hawke plays a child abductor known only as the Grabber. One of his victims is Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), who awakens in the Grabber’s lair to find an unplugged black phone. Soon, the phone begins to ring, revealing the departed voices of all those who’ve come before him.

I’ll be transparent and say that even though I own the paperback collection, I haven’t yet read Joe Hill’s Black Phone short stories upon which the film is based. I can’t compare Derrickson and Cargill’s script to what’s on the page, but what I can say is that the story is concise and uncomplicated, two words that the horror genre has been generally lacking in recent years. Sometimes, it’s beneficial (like in Jordan Peele’s Us and Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy), but oftentimes it just muddles what could have been a great premise (my mind often goes to Netflix’s recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot). The core of horror is primal fear, and The Black Phone accesses that core far too well.

And if we’re talking about fear, Ethan Hawke has it all. The Grabber has an air of insanity, but he’s still clearly cognizant, and very aware of his actions. That awareness only makes him more terrifying, because even though he has “rules” for how he deals with his victims, nothing is off the table. We just saw him as a villain in Moon Knight, but Ethan Hawke is on another level here, delving more into the psychotic and disturbing than I’ve ever seen him do before.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Black Phone
will not be satisfying for those who like a complete mystery. Just as many of Stephen King’s stories contain psychic and empathic characters with little to no explanation — though many of those can be retconned as having the Shining — The Black Phone is content to let its supernatural elements remain largely without context. Finney’s younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), is the telepath in this scenario, with clues as to the Grabber and Finney’s locations coming in dreams. It’s an interesting story convention, but the actual mystery aspect is almost entirely absent, with the police search sidelined in favor of more time in the Grabber’s basement. No complaints from me.

This is what Derrickson and Cargill made instead of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I’m glad that both are able to exist. With a lack of reliance on jump scares and two powerhouse central performances — those of Hawke and Thames — The Black Phone stays engaging and genuinely creepy throughout. This doesn’t happen often, but I had no idea what would happen next, and though I hoped for a happy ending, I know these stories don’t typically end with sunshine and rainbows. But where there’s a will, there’s a way…and the voices of deceased comrades on an unplugged black phone.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Black Phone is in theaters now.

No comments:

Post a Comment