The Black Phone

Scott Derrickson grounds supernatural terror and trauma on central themes of kinship and siblinghood.

Dead phone, who ‘dis?

In Scott Derickson’s supernatural thriller, The Black Phone, the frights ring through the wire. The phone’s make and model don’t matter; it’s unplugged. But when thirteen-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) finds himself detained inside a child abductor’s basement, it proves talismanic for any escape attempts he’d hope to make.

He falls victim to a serial child abductor (and killer) mythologized by his small, suburban Denver town as ‘The Grabber,’ a moniker that, post-Trump and post-Duterte, invites to get canceled.

No matter. Our story is set in the late ‘70s, an era fondly remembered by genre nuts for its unabashed knack for positively wild clothing (bellbottoms and bandanas?!), Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” and a generally derided horror indie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Finney is the preferred punching bag at school, largely because he refuses to fight back; he’s got Robin (Miguel Crazez Mora) to do the squaring for him.

The Black Phone (2022, dir. Scott Derrickson)

When Robin himself gets abducted, Finney is doomed to take emotional beatings both at school and at home, thanks to his father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), who harbors a deep-seated rage for his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and her springing clairvoyance.

The screenplay, co-written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, paints a vivid slice-of-life picture of Finney and Gwen’s unenviable existence. They’re prototypical Stephen King tweens: plucky, whipsmart, and already woefully aware of their tragic circumstance. This tracks, of course, because the film is based on the same-name short story by Joe Hill, King’s son. I’ve yet to read Hill’s story, but if Derrickson’s film is any indication, I like that the kids in his stories live with terror and trauma that feels even more grounded than those in his father’s stories.

The siblings’ dynamic is ripe, with Thames and McGraw lending each moment together with youthful abandon. You don’t question their kinship; you accept that they’ve grown accustomed to a life of sour circumstance and committed, sweetly, to have each other’s backs. So, when the supernatural parts struggle to cohere with the rest of the film, it’s an easy resolution to make up in one’s mind that Gwen will come to rescue Finney come hell or high water.

The Black Phone (2022, dir. Scott Derrickson)

Running at one hour and forty-two minutes, The Black Phone is brisk — both twists and shocks ringing off the hook, with nary any spaces in between — or, rather, sparse, a byproduct, might it be, of the short, thirty-page source material. The Grabber, in effect, is rendered less like an enigmatic evil and more a pathetic creep, unworthy of his weight in murdered pound flesh. A peek inside his twisted psyche would give the character some texture, but alas, there isn’t much that his character hinges on.

That doesn’t seem to be an issue for Ethan Hawke, who, by all accounts, depicted this well-worn serial killer-borne-out-of-’70s-Satanic Panic mascot with an unsurprising level of ability. The instant switches from stark indifference to straight-up mania are truly fascinating, considering, of course, that in much of his screentime, his face is partially (if not fully) obscured. And DP Brett Jutkiewicz’s thoughtful lensing adds visual intrigue and menacing quality to his character.

More pensive than terrifying and strangely disruptive of some of its grounded themes of kinship and siblinghood, The Black Phone often feels at odds with itself. A strong cast and a fully-realized setting uplift this otherwise incoherent Blumhouse supernatural thriller.

The official poster for The Black Phone.

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