By: Amanda Guarragi
There can be supernatural thrillers that are marketed as horror films, like The Black Phone. Director Scott Derrickson has made a name for himself in the horror genre because of Sinister (one of the most terrifying movies to ever be released) but that’s not enough to hold the audience over for this one. Once a writer dives into the supernatural nature of spirits, the story can get a bit ridiculous. In this case, The Black Phone didn’t expand or provide any backstory on why the supernatural element was present. The original story written by Joe Hill was very strong, but sometimes when these stories are translated to screen, it doesn’t work in the same way.
We meet Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) who is a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, who’s being held in a soundproof basement by a sadistic, masked killer named The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). When a disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, he soon discovers that he can hear the voices of the murderer’s previous victims — and they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney. On top of that, Finney’s little sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) has these visions that eventually come true. She can help the detectives find where The Grabber takes these young boys. Thames and McGraw are the stars of this movie because they compliment each other so well as brother and sister.
Instead of labelling this as a supernatural thriller, this can also be seen as a coming-of-age film for young Finney. He has been bullied his entire life and is very timid. He tries his best to stay out of trouble and he can control his anger. On the other side of this, his little sister Gwen is an outspoken spitfire that defends her brother and expresses herself with her words. McGraw stole the spotlight because of her lines of dialogue and she made the movie better. Once Finney is captured by The Grabber and the phone starts ringing, the second half of this film just drags on. The way the other lost children helped Finney escape from The Grabber was fine, but it just felt overly long and a bit convenient. There were tools placed in the room that are placed there to help him escape.
The Black Phone looked promising but the way the story was executed wasn’t engaging. Ethan Hawke had some great moments, but he was ultimately wasted in a role that could have made The Grabber iconic. Because it was a short story first, it feels like the majority of the story was explained, rather than shown to the audience. And in horror movies, it’s always more fun to see what the villain of the story is capable of. The one takeaway is that the sound design and the violence within the movie were really strong and made an impact during certain scenes. It has a strong premise, but it could have been executed more viscerally to make that connection to the characters.