The Black Phone–A breathless thriller, and stunning re-creation of the 1970s

Review by C.J. Bunce

Every now and then a movie truly keeps you riveted to your seat.  You can usually bank on a movie co-starring Ethan Hawke to be good.  This year’s “coming of age, supernatural horror thriller” The Black Phone is much better than good.  It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a few years of any genre.  Following a brother in sister in a small Denver suburb in 1978 as the town is shocked by a criminal dubbed the Grabber, who is kidnapping and killing young boys, a few years before pictures of missing kids would be the subject of milk cartons across the nation.  Based on a Joe Hill short story, the subject matter is not something audiences are expected to be comfortable with, and yet the handling of it, as well as the incorporation of supernatural elements, makes for a movie as stunning as David Fincher’s Zodiac, grounded so much in reality anyone who lived through the era will certainly find elements from their own memories as director Scott Derrickson delivers one of the finest re-creations of the 1970s ever put on film.

Finney Blake is the brother, played expertly by 14-year-old Mason Thames (For All Mankind, Evel), he looks like every third friend you may have had back in 1978–an ordinary kid, playing little league baseball, with a sister who is not too much younger to still be his friend at school and at home.  His sister is Gwen, played by 13-year-old actress Madeleine McGraw (Bones, The Mitchells vs the Machines), who alone would be reason enough to watch the show.  In a word, she’s badass–a thoughtful, intelligent, determined, and brave character.

Besides helping her brother as he gets bullied at school, she has troubling dreams about the abducted kids, dreams too real to be overlooked.  She tells a teacher, who believes her and brings in the police–police who actually listen–but must face an alcoholic father who doesn’t want her to labeled as crazy, as apparently happened to her mother.

It may be the first time an alcoholic character is handled truthfully on film, too.  Usually a father who drinks too much and beats his kids with a belt is there to gin up sympathy for the victim, but that’s only part of this story.  Believably played here by Jeremy Davies (Twister, Lost, Sleepy Hollow, Twin Peaks) this father clearly cares about his kids.  He’s also a product of his time.  Why this dad drinks, and how he got that way, is more than slotting the alcoholic as the villain in any other tale.  But that’s only secondary to the main storylines.

Handled similarly well is the school bullying–the young actors beyond the leads are bright and well-cast.  Movies repeatedly try but never get the conditions and responses right.  Director Scott Derrickson gets its exactly right in The Black Phone.  Why do some kids fight?  Why does Finney choose not to fight?  That’s the important question in the story, and should put the film squarely onto your best coming-of-age movies list.

For those after a traditional horror movie, this isn’t for them.  It’s chilling and thrilling and has a bad guy in a creepy mask, and it has some brief gore, but the delivery is more anticipatory fear, psychological–the “be quiet or he’ll hear you,” “don’t look over your shoulder” variety.  Derrickson holds back on showing the depraved murders of a killer on the screen, which serves the film well.  And nobody wants to see Ethan Hawke in that kind of role anyway–his performance is smartly understated and he’s not particularly as scary as most horror villains.  This is not a police procedural, although the supportive detectives are a plus.  But it’s also not for kids, even if it’s not a typical Blumhouse horror show.

Do you recall the first time you watched Midnight Special or The Vast of Night?  The Black Phone is of similar simplicity, and similar jaw-dropping, raw punch.  It’s real enough you might as well add “historical drama” to the other adjectives since it gets the era and reaction to local crimes so right (the only thing it does inaccurately–necessarily for this story–is distance itself from the full horrors of its real-life crime counterparts).

Could this be a secret prequel to the TV series Medium?  A sister and brother with paranormal senses, inherited from a parent?  Probably not, but it fits.  What’s the scariest part?  Gwen riding her bike alone to find her brother, and anticipating Gwen’s next action at every turn.

Blending the sincerity of Super 8 with the tenor of Silver Bullet, the chills of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and the pacing of Zodiac, the genre-bender The Black Phone is this year’s must-see film.  Catch The Black Phone now streaming on Peacock.  It’s also available via Prime Video and Vudu, and in a limited theatrical release.

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