With creative partners Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill not able to see eye-to-eye with Marvel/Disney on their plans for the Doctor Strange sequel, the two filmmakers decided to do a simpler, smaller-scale horror movie. And I absolute believe that cinema is all the better for it. Not only did we get treated to a great MCU entry by filmmaker Sam Raimi, now we get a great period horror/thiller by Derrickson and Cargill. That movie is The Black Phone, and in my humble opinion, it is their best theatrical feature delivered by the dynamic duo, so far.
The year is 1978, and a Denver suburb has been plagued with a serial kidnapper/killer labeled by the media as “The Grabber.” As if their lives weren’t already troublesome, brother and sister Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) cringe in fear as they see several of their friends and classmates disappear as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) targets them one-by-one. On one particular day, Finney gets snatched by the serial murderer and awakens to find himself trapped in his lair. As Finn awaits fearfully for what seems to be his inevitable death, a supposedly non-working telephone in his basement dungeon gives him clues and assistance to escape the fate of the others who preceded him.
Based on the short-story, of the same name, by Joe Hill, Cargill and Derrickson deliver a gripping, frightening and utterly unnerving thriller with their adaptation. The movie comes across as a sort-of, Dazed and Confused meets It type of horror film that hits mostly all of the right notes. Though feeling somewhat derivative of horror that is currently popular, such as It and Stranger Things, there is still plenty of great material to enjoy and appreciate. The movie does have some questionable logic regarding the characters and scenarios, but the chills, thrills and exciting climax definitely distract from any flaws the movie has.
It also helps tremendously that the cast for The Black Phone is absoultely wonderful. Starting with Ethan Hawke, it is both a treat and surprise to see him take on a role so completely different from anything he has done previously. As The Grabber, Hawke is so insanely frightening, but without ever going over-the-top. As the protagonist and latest victim Finn, Mason Thames absolutely shines, as a mostly timid and shy middle school kid who needs to muster up the inner strength to survive this ordeal.
As Finn’s younger, but more courageous and stronger sister Gwen, Madeline McGraw is wonderful. She brings a brassy attitude and winsome charm to the character that makes her so admirable and lovable, mixed with a genuine vulnerability. I also marveled at the perforrmance by Jeremy Davies who portrays Finn and Gwen’s alcoholic and abusive father. It is a rather frightening, but dimensional, turn.
It gives me much pleasure that both Derrickson and Cargill were able to bounce back with a great movie, after parting ways with Marvel/Disney. Had this not happened, we either would not have gotten this great thriller, or we would have to wait much longer to see it hit the light of the day. I am also thrilled that such creative talents were able to endure, despite the challenges of the starting fresh, along with the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Go see The Black Phone in theaters. It is totally worth it!