The Black Phone is one of the best cases of retro horror with terror and teeth.
Published on June 30, 2022
Rating 4 /5
The Black Phone comes from the strong talent of horror lovers. It’s based on a short story by Joe Hill, who has continued to impress with his scary stories Locke & Key and Strange Weather. It’s directed by Scott Derickson, who has dabbled in everything from the supernatural terror of The Exorcism of Emily Rose to the trippy fantasy of Doctor Strange. It’s co-written by C. Robert Cargill, who has worked alongside Derrickson for the horror Sinister and also written his own brand of published horror stories. The combination of all of them makes for one of the strongest horror films in recent memory that taps the past for more than mere nostalgia.
It is 1978 in a Denver suburb and all's not well. Kids have gone missing after a mysterious black van pulls up in front of them. The community is terrified but the brother and sister of Finney and Gwen Shaw have much bigger problems in their lives. Both of them have to deal with their violent single father who drinks too much and beats them too hard. Finney also has to deal with a bully whom he can’t quite beat up, relying on a tougher ally to keep him at bay.
Finney finds himself at his most desperate when he becomes the latest victim of the local kidnapper dubbed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). The Grabber keeps his face hidden in creepy masks and speaks in a bizarre manner that is both cheerful and sinister. Trapped in a basement with the exits sealed, Finney fears he’ll face an early death. But he’ll get some help from the odd black phone in the room. Ever so often, the phone will ring and Finney will find himself talking to previous victims. Despite the dead speaking somewhat cryptically, Finney may just be able to find a way to escape.
One area where The Black Phone succeeds best is its strong portrayals of kid protagonists. Finney truly feels like an underdog worth rooting for with his relatable issues of always being behind and feeling helpless amid abusive adults. His sister, Gwen, practically steals the show for her vicious dialogue and cunning supernatural ability to receive visions in her dreams, slowly guiding her towards saving her brother. It’s both hilarious and satisfying listening to her skewer the accusatory cops with expletives that offend any adults within earshot. Even supernatural forces get a talking-to from Gwen when she finds herself frustrated with the puzzling nature of the clues.
The direction is tense and builds on the chilling nature beautifully. I love how The Grabber is kept as a dark shadow, never revealing himself until the moment when Finney is kidnapped. The anticipation for the escape grows more engaging with each phone call and discovery made in the room, creating an escape that feels as elaborate as it is difficult. Hawke is in top form as the creepy kid killer who never reveals his face but always remains a terrifying threat. One of the creepiest moments features him saying very little, merely waiting in his kitchen with his shirt off and a belt in his hand, eager for his captive to take his bait for an easy escape. The climax this all builds towards feels so incredibly satisfying that it generated one of the biggest cheers from an audience I’ve heard in quite some time.
The Black Phone is one of the best cases of retro horror with terror and teeth. It doesn’t lament too much on the 1970s setting and finds just the right amount of scariness and determination for a highly engaging picture. The clever direction leads to satisfying jump scares and a warping of reality that is as surreal in the visuals as it is progressive in the story. As far as horror films go where the kids fight back, this is a real crowd-pleaser of a picture sure to scratch the itch for those who dug the likes of Stranger Things and It.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.