The Black Phone could’ve easily been a disposable horror thriller, but it’s elevated largely due to a committed cast and a story that features credible stakes.
Ethan Hawke stars as a serial killer known as The Grabber in 1978 Denver. Mason Thames costars as a young boy named Finney and Madeleine McGraw is his younger sister Gwen. The two siblings share a home with their abusive, alcoholic widowed father (Jeremy Davies).
The Grabber targets high school kids by luring them into a black van with black balloons. One day Finney finds himself in the crosshairs as The Grabber’s next victim and becomes kidnapped. He’s placed inside a soundproof basement that gives off some Silence of the Lambs vibes.
While he’s down there, Finney discovers a disconnected black phone, but despite it not being connected, the phone rings anyway and on the other line are The Grabber’s previous targets. They have no recollection of their former lives. Still, they try to guide Finney on how to break out.
Meanwhile, Gwen begins to have psychic dreams as to how to find Finney. She tries to explain her dreams to two detectives (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal), but they are dismissive of her claims.
Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson is a master at pacing. He’s much more interested in creating a story that’s driven by atmosphere, suspense, dialogue and motivation. This could’ve been a gore fest from the start, but the movie takes a much more cerebral approach by building the tension slowly and also allowing these actors to do something with these characters.
Thames and McGraw do wonderful work as two kids who have a great relationship and are each other’s backbone in the madness. They rely on intelligence, resourcefulness and occasionally a dark sense of humor.
Hawke creates a menacing presence as a killer who is terrifying and even a bit misguided in his methods. One such scene illustrates his willingness to let Finney go, but Finney makes a crucial mistake and The Grabber keeps him locked up. It’s a creepy, tour de force performance.
The movie has moments where it doesn’t make you use your head except for its conclusion, but it’s still a smart, tense, well-crafted supernatural thriller.
When this phone rings, answer the call.