THE BLACK PHONE review – Coming soon for your nightmares

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Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, and Ethan Hawke
Movie Length: 1 hours 43 minutes

Coming soon for your nightmares is The Black Phone, a Blumhouse feature that sports a brand new logo sequence for the studio; one that speaks of maturation and expectation for upcoming projects. A story about siblings and survival, The Black Phone shows us what happens when a frightening serial kidnapper nicknamed, “The Grabber,” imprisons a boy named Finney in a basement with nothing but a broken phone and dark threats. Finney’s younger sister prays fervently and fights furiously to find and save her brother, while Finney slowly realizes that the Grabber’s previous victims are calling to him from beyond the grave through the black phone he’s trapped with.

Ethan Hawke delivers a physically impressive and refreshingly opaque performance as our bad guy, and while the meanings behind his creepy-as-hell masks (maybe multiple personalities, or recreations of past trauma, perhaps?) are intriguing, this film makes a deliberate and wise move away from inhabiting the psyche of the killer. The movie largely keeps us embedded in the situations and minds of Finney and Gwen, who live a tumultuous life full of unnecessary violence. Their single dad mourns the past suicide of his wife with intense alcoholism, and beats Gwen terribly if she even mentions the dreams she has that sometimes come true, just like her mother used to have. Finney is plagued by bullies at school who brutally assault him, and they apparently always have.

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures – © 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

What’s nice about this film’s choice to avoid the psyche of the killer is that it never romanticizes him. We fear and detest him, even though we are able to see the likelihood of traumatic, psychological damage in his crimes, and keeping his origins a mystery allows us to fear him even more – it’s always scarier when you don’t fully know the nature of the monster haunting you. Director Scott Derrikson has certainly shown some deliberate growth since Sinister, even if he uses similar settings and faces. I would submit that this movie’s minor similarities to Sinister serve to highlight the way in which this flick succeeds beyond Derrickson’s past horror ventures, and it’s delightful to see such a faithful adaptation of the original short story by Joe Hill. 

The Black Phone lives most certainly within the realm of the supernatural without ever treading into territory that doesn’t somehow feel grounded in our reality. Gwen’s subtle but powerful faith story is a beacon of hope and humor throughout the movie, while Gwen herself is a damn hero (she earned audience applause and cheers more than once during my screening). Finney’s efforts to escape are physically strenuous and often fail, and it’s refreshing to see action and escape attempts that work out how you would expect them to in the real world, especially when kids are involved. Even so, seeing these kids who have been victims of violence at home and at school throughout their lives finally triumph by enacting necessary violence against a monster who fully deserves it? Tremendous and cathartic.

The Black Phone is a story about defeating bullies, learning how and when to fight, and embracing the mystical aspects of our lives. Even when they confuse or frighten us, they may have just what we need in order to survive in a dark and violent world.

Grade: A

The Black Phone is now playing in theaters in the US.


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