"The Black Phone" is a horror film based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill. Directed by Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose", "Doctor Strange") and starring Ethan Hawke, it works well with its interesting premise and features some solid performances from its cast.
In 1978, young Finney Blake (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live in a small suburb in Denver, Colorado. At school, the physically weak Finney often faces off against bullies while Gwen's psychic dream abilities attract the attention of the local police. One day, Finney is kidnapped by a masked murderer known only as "The Grabber" (Ethan Hawke), who locks him away in a soundproofed basement with a disconnected phone mounted on the wall. While Gwen aids the police in finding Finney's location, the latter starts to receive calls from the phone that belong to the disembodied souls of The Grabber's victims. As Finney answers more of their calls, the victims start to give him advice on how to avoid meeting the same fate as them.
Though not many people would be familiar with the author Joe Hill, I'm certain virtually everyone knows who is father is - Stephen King. Following in famous father's footsteps, Hill is slowly but surely crafting a name for himself with stories such as "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Horns" all making waves within the horror-fiction community. Aside from the moderately successful TV series "Locke & Key", which is based on a set of comic books he wrote, Hill has had very few other adaptations of his work that are worth mentioning. Now with 2022's "The Black Phone", Hill finally has an adaptation that can be considered a true defining point in his career as a writer, because it succeeds not only as a good horror film but as a pretty decent coming-of-age film too.
Much like his father before him, Hill's storytelling technique manages to combine the two genres together to create something that sets itself apart from most other similar films. We get to properly know our lead characters through the conditions they grow up in and the type of people they are surrounded by. For instance, Finney is a supportive older brother to Gwen, whom the latter faces frequent abuse from her alcoholic father. Although his intentions are honourable, Finney can never quite muster the courage to stand up to injustice and instead relies on others to do the job for him. Over the course of the film, we get to see how Finney grows as a character, gradually finding ways to build his self-confidence through various methods, either through the people he meets or on his own merits. Without divulging too much else, the film does a solid job at establishing Finney as a well-rounded protagonist that practically any young teen watching can find ways to identify with.
However, the one major problem I have with the film is Hill's overreliance on the story tropes pioneered by his father. While I was watching, I couldn't help but pick out nearly all of the typical Stephen King clichés that were being used left, right, and centre. The insecure alcoholic parent, the young child with unexplained supernatural abilities, the subtle slighting against Christianity, the school bullies attacking the protagonist, and even the small town setting are all used here prominently. The only thing that seemed different was that the story takes place in Colorado instead of Maine (I guess that would have been too obvious). I understand that Hill has taken a lot of influence from his father's writing style, which is fine, but if he wants to form his own identity, he really needs to do a whole lot more to create something unique for himself that won't leave him remembered as being simply "Stephen King's Son". With that in mind, the tropes still make for an effective horror story, even if we've seen them all many times before.
Under the direction of seasoned horror filmmaker Scott Derrickson, the film has just the right amount of flow and pacing to properly carry itself along without wearing out its welcome. Derrickson goes for a classic approach to horror, relying primarily on mounting dread rather than straight-up blood and gore. Whenever something frightening happens after the appropriate build-up, it always felt earned and wasn't simply shoehorned in there as a cheap jump-scare. If anything, Derrickson's directorial style is reminiscent of John Carpenter, in that he uses suspense and atmosphere to set the tone of a particular scene, allowing for a more streamlined horror experience.
The audience is also given little information about what The Grabber's motivations are other than to abduct children and keep them prisoner for an extended period of time. This works well because while it's obvious his intentions are sinister; we never quite get to see the extent of how bad things could get for someone like poor Finney. Instead, we are drip-fed small moments of what The Grabber is truly capable of through the phone calls Finney receives, which allows the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks of what atrocities have been committed. Sometimes, minimalism works best in scenarios like this and Derrickson uses all of that to the film's advantage.
Another thing that helps the film in the long run is the performances from its main cast. Mason Thames manages to hold the audience's attention throughout scenes that could have dragged on if a less talented young actor played the role. Best of all, he actually acts like how a real person might if they were trapped in a situation such as this. He never comes across as an annoying teenager resorting to extreme measures when trying to escape but instead as an intellectual using more practical means to break free. Thames's chemistry with his on-screen sister Madeleine McGraw felt like a real sibling relationship, with the two of them looking out for each other during the worst of times. McGraw does a nice job balancing the story out with Gwen's psychic powers providing a "Shining"-esque method of hunting down her brother's kidnapper. Although I wish we could have had more scenes of her using these abilities throughout the film, what we ended up getting in the end was satisfactory.
Additionally, Ethan Hawke takes a threatening turn in portraying "The Grabber". While this isn't the first time Hawke has played a villain, I don't believe we've ever seen him play one this unhinged and unpredictable. Apart from the fact that he wears a large scary mask that looks like it came straight out of "The Purge" series (which coincidentally starred Hawke in the first film), it's alarming to think that there really are abductors out there like him who would do such evil things to children. I was always curious to see what his true intentions were with Finney and without giving away spoilers it was eventually explained as the film went on. All you need to know is that he is a dangerous man who derives sick pleasure from what he does.
As both a horror film and a coming-of-age film, "The Black Phone" is just as entertaining as any Stephen King-inspired story should be, with its well-developed characters and involving plot. In the future, I just hope that Joe Hill finds a way to distinguish himself better by writing something a bit more original that doesn't feel like he's borrowing heavily from his old man. If you're willing to look past its overused tropes, then the film still functions as an efficient treat for horror fans craving a quick fix. With that said, I know I got mine.
I rate it 7/10.
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