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Black Phone

There are certain films that hit harder in the days after your initial viewing experience.  

These are the ones that take root in your brain as you churn through the details, allowing you to realize that there was far more complexity and depth than you had originally believed. Most recently, Jordan Peele’s NOPE would certainly fall into this category.  Then, there are movies that go the other way. These are movies that provided a visceral experience, but the more you contemplate what unfolded, the less impactful it becomes.

Based on the short story by Joe Hill (son of horror legend Stephen King) THE BLACK PHONE is an atmospheric supernatural thriller that entertains, but ultimately leaves too many lingering questions. 

In 1978, Finney’s (Mason Thames) main concern is dodging the bullies who want to pummel him at every turn. They chase him into the bathroom, throw insults and slurs his way, and then act upon their bloodlust if the opportunity arises. Luckily for him, his pal Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) is the toughest kid in school, and whose mere presence is enough to keep the bullies at bay. Unfortunately, Finney has a few other things to worry about, as well. His father (a particularly over-the-top Jeremy Davies) is a raging alcoholic who disciplines with a heavy fist and an even heavier belt. He hates noise, like, a lot, but perhaps even more than that, he hates that Finney’s sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) has dreams that may actually be psychic visions. Apparently, this type of affliction beset the children’s mother, and she took her own life because of it.  

The other frightening thing that Finney has to deal with is a fella known as “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke). Teenage boys have gone missing in the town at an alarming rate, and Mr. Grabby is the culprit. Though it’s a tiny town and everyone is on the lookout, one fateful afternoon, Finney is snatched by the evildoer and locked in a basement that contains a mattress, a toilet, and a disconnected black phone.

THE BLACK PHONE has plenty of genuinely uncomfortable and creepy moments that allow it to rise above most of the schlocky horror/thriller films that are in the same vein.  It has a particularly dire and gritty feel to it, and the performances by newcomers Thames and McGraw are excellent. The chemistry between the two is surprisingly genuine, and given the nature of their relationship, this is imperative to the success of the story.  Hawke, donning a variety of masks and sporting an uncomfortably high-pitched voice, is a spectacularly creepy presence. As an audience, we’re never quite sure what his motives or intentions are, but as the film progresses, it’s obvious that they aren’t exactly good.  

Once the titular phone begins to ring, and the secrets of the basement begin to unfurl, Finney begins to grasp the peril of his predicament. This is where the supernatural element starts to kick in. This leads to some interesting revelations, but also opens THE BLACK PHONE to certain levels of absurdity. For a movie that had done a fantastic job setting an atmospheric tone, some of the “gotcha” moments are downright silly. These unintentional moments of hilarity break the tension that had been expertly built, and by the time we get to a bloody, levitating teen, I was utterly perplexed by their inclusion.  Unlike other films in the genre, however, THE BLACK PHONE consistently found a way to rebound. This, again, can be credited to the performances of Thame and Hawke, as their cat-and-mouse game was often enough to overcome these fleeting moments of frivolity.

Absurd name aside, The Grabber would have been a far more intriguing character if there was even the slightest bit of backstory, development, motivation, or anything that made him more complex. Heck, even Freddy, Jason, and Michael had their own tales of woe. Perhaps he is just meant to be the personification of evil, which would make sense, but at the same time, Hawke was such an incredible presence, the character could have been far more impactful. He was terrifying, I’ll certainly give him that. I just believe that given the foundation that was there, he could have been so much more. 


(Now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock)

Brian Miller