‘The Black Phone’ Movie Review: Scott Derrickson Taps Into Childhood Fears With Ethan Hawke’s Horrifying Killer

Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill previously brought the world Sinister, which is one of the most terrifying movies of the 2010s. They’re returning with another story involving dead children based on Joe Hill’s 2014 short story titled The Black Phone. However, this one’s more of a thriller than an outright horror film. But, that doesn’t necessarily make it any less captivating.

‘The Black Phone’ introduces a terrifying killer

'The Black Phone' Ethan Hawke as The Grabber and Mason Thames as Finney Shaw with Hawke wearing a demon mask and holding Thames, who is passed out
L-R: Ethan Hawke as The Grabber and Mason Thames as Finney Shaw | Fred Norris/Universal Pictures

Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) is a shy adolescent living with his little sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and their abusive father (Jeremy Davies). Finney does what he can to protect Gwen at home from their dad. Meanwhile, Gwen stands up for Finney against school bullies. The loss of their mother still haunts them, but they remain to be each other’s strength.

A sadistic child abductor and murderer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) is on the loose. He captures Finney and traps him in a soundproof basement with a black phone that the Grabber swears doesn’t work. However, Finney begins receiving phone calls on it from the spirits of the previous child victims. They plan on helping him to make sure that he won’t suffer the same fate.

‘The Black Phone’ balances two thrilling narratives

The Black Phone balances Finney and Gwen’s narratives. Both of them include supernatural elements. Finney’s phone calls make an already unnerving concept that much more intense. Gwen has visions in her dreams, as they both engage in a fight for Finney’s survival. Derrickson and Cargill give both of these kids an equal amount of depth and agency, which is an impressive feat. Neither one tugs any weight from the other.

There’s a clear parallel between the Grabber and the children’s father. Finney and Gwen are forced to fight for survival in both environments but in different ways. The 1970s setting enhances the movie’s atmosphere, as it depicts a type of childhood that’s vastly different from today. This particularly holds true in their interactions with authority figures and peers.

The Black Phone is no joke, but it does incorporate some humor. However, it doesn’t impede the movie’s tension. There are a few balancing acts occurring here and they’re executed rather well. The screenplay builds into a third act that is reminiscent of more traditional horror. It’s less showy than a lot of modern horrors but focuses more on mending the two narratives that build alongside one another before they begin to weave.

The horror comes from childhood fears

'The Black Phone' Mason Thames as Finney Shaw and Madeleine McGraw as Gwen Shaw holding their bags on their shoulders in front of a house in suburbia
L-R: Mason Thames as Finney Shaw and Madeleine McGraw as Gwen Shaw | Fred Norris/Universal Pictures

The Black Phone is largely about childhood trauma. Finney and Gwen are constantly put through the ringer between bullies, their father, and The Grabber. The movie relies on camera pans for its jump scares. But, Derrickson’s direction successfully carries tension throughout the movie. Jason Blum previously stated that this is the scariest movie that he’s ever produced, but Sinister is substantially scarier.

The performances elevate Derrickson and Cargill’s screenplay. Derrickson has proven his ability to work with child actors. Thames delivers a solid performance as Finney, who’s growing into his own through a traumatic ordeal. However, McGraw is utterly fantastic. She totally steals the spotlight as Gwen with her tremendous comedic timing and dramatic chops that establish her as a rising star to watch.

Hawke doesn’t typically play villains, but he’s the scariest thing about The Black Phone. He wears masks for the majority of the movie, but his eerie cadence and intimidating presence make for a terrifying killer. The actor has such a commanding presence that it often feels tucked into every corner of this movie, even when he isn’t on-screen.

The Black Phone isn’t going to have you sleeping with the lights on, but it’s entirely thrilling from start to finish. Strong performances and a well-edited cut elevate an already solid screenplay. You’ll care for the characters and best of all, it respects the audience. It could have easily jerked viewers around, but it doesn’t. The Black Phone is stirring and thoroughly captivating.

The Black Phone calls into theaters on June 24.

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