Scott Derrickson once again dives back into the horror sphere, this time adapting Joe Hill’s short story, “The Black Phone.” Combining Ethan Hawke’s terrific performance along with the supernatural elements, the adaptation induces goosebumps reminiscent of ’70s horror movies.
A small town, a bunch of bullies, an abusive household and a terrifying child abductor—Scott Derrickson has the quintessential formula to make either an incredibly terrifying movie, or an underwhelmingly banal one. And he succeeds in the former: Similar to one of his previous successful horror films, Sinister, a bogeyman starts snatching children one by one, with only one ominous trace left behind. Starring Ethan Hawke as “the Grabber,” his haunting demeanor is evoked by a devilish mask he wears when he makes an appearance to his victims. The main characters, Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his little sister Gwen Blake (Madeleine McGraw) live in an abusive household, and their strong bond serves as that sliver of hope when things go further south.
The film adopts a more supernatural atmosphere when Finney gets kidnapped by the Grabber, while maintaining that sense of psychological terror conveyed by its realistic aspects. The Grabber’s persona and confidence are fortified by his mask; it allows him to be a glorified version of himself, embodying a caricature of a masculine and authorative figure. However, his anxiety shows a side of him that makes him realize his lack of control and tries to mitigate that by terrorizing Finney. Finney stays locked in the claustrophobic basement and attempts to escape until he realizes that the mysterious black phone beside his mattress can be an important tool. While it initially seems like a regular disconnected phone that has long stopped working, the phone starts ringing and to Finney’s surprise, it’s voices of the Grabber’s previous victims on the line. With instructions given by each victim day by day, Finney attempts to combat the Grabber by persevering and getting to know his strange ritualistic behavior. The phone appears to symbolize hope for Finney but shame for the Grabber, as the child abductor continuously shows an aversion towards it—reminding him of his crimes and the past that might come back to haunt him. Simultaneously, Gwen tries to locate Finney with her psychic powers she inherited from her (deceased) mother.
Ethan Hawke successfully displays the villainous demeanor of the Grabber, and his consistently solid performance doesn’t fail to evoke fear in the audience. His capriciousness leads to even more hostile behavior, especially when he realizes that Finney wasn’t “playing his game” the way he wants him to. I think that Hawke’s role and the dynamics between the siblings are what particularly made this film particularly striking. However, it does have a few shortcomings that are more evident towards the end. While I can certainly hold my suspension of disbelief (especially for this type of premise), the deus-ex machina elements felt more propelled as the film concludes. What bothers me further is the fact that trauma and abuse are disturbingly normal for Finney and Gwen, yet this part seems to dissipate nearing the end, as if a traumatic event is implied to bring the family together and resolve the history of abuse. This makes it seem that the abuse aspect is merely a shallow plot device that is barely tackled, and therefore doesn’t add much to the film.
The flaws certainly didn’t outweigh the jarring atmosphere and familiarly creepy soundtrack, performance of the cast and the overall storyline. I find that The Black Phone is an adaptation that almost outshines its original source, and that’s quite rare to come by in the horror genre!