Ethan Hawke as 'The Grabber' in The Black Phone
Brought to us by the same duo that gave us new age classics like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Black Phone was directed by Scott Derrikson and sees Ethan Hawke in one of his most eerie performances yet. 2015’s Sinister, scientifically proven to be one of the scariest movies of the 21st century, found Hawke playing the role of protagonist: a loving father and writer chasing a hot lead on a cold case. In The Black Phone, Hawke hangs up his glasses and paternal attitude for an eerie mask and top hat. A has-been magician, Hawke’s character is known as “The Grabber”, a man who kidnaps children along a small Denver town in 1978. The editing style and tone of this film make it play like a fever dream, with intermittent clips taken on film cameras and dreamlike sequences featuring 70’s music and style.
The Grabber and Finney, played by Mason Thames, in The Black Phone
The movie opens with a clear precedent, showing us how The Grabber rolls around town in a big black van taking children. We follow young middle schooler Finney and his feisty little sister Gwen as the former tries to fend off the bullies at school and the latter tries to decipher the strange dreams she has every night. Her dreams seem to be more than just that, her sleeping mind often showing her visions of the lost boys The Grabber has taken. When her older brother Finney is snatched, Gwen tries to find him in her dreams. While trapped in a gloomy basement, The Grabber leaves Finney to head upstairs… but leaves the door ajar. Finny, surrounded only by cement walls and a black phone with a severed cord, instantly makes his way towards the door to escape. Thinking The Grabber left the door unlocked by accident, Finney is moments from pulling it open and making a run for it. But just as he reaches for the handle… the black phone rings. Confused as to how a broken phone can ring, he heads back through the dark room to answer it. He peers over at the door left ajar, contemplating his escape, before a quivering voice on the other line suddenly says: “Don’t go upstairs. He’s waiting for you.”
From what we saw in the trailer, originally I predicted that Gwen and Finney would be twins and this is why she dreams of her kidnapped brother. Although the film takes a more supernatural route, it never explains why Gwen has these oddly accurate dreams or how the ghosts of kidnapped kids are able to speak to Finney through the broken phone. The problem with this mystery is that it’s never solved; by the end of the film, it’s still unclear how Gwen has these psychic dreams, how the dead boys are calling Finney through a broken phone and what The Grabber’s intentions for them all even were. For audiences who like big twists in the final act in movies like Don’t Breathe or Shutter Island, this movie isn’t for you. The Black Phone opens like a frightening freight train, serving spine chilling scares with The Grabber’s first few kidnappings. After that, the vicious flame boils down to a soft simmer. Once Finny is taken, the pace slows notably. This movie would’ve benefited from tightening up its sequences, as it often leaves audiences impatiently waiting for the action to pick up again. This film had the potential to keep us on our toes during scenes where voices on the phone advise Finney on how to escape while pressed for time between The Grabber’s appearances, but the pacing and score work against these suspenseful scenes. A good score is an integral ingredient to any horror movie. Although composer Mark Koven has scored many successful scary movies, this ultimately was a miss.
Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as Finney and Gwen in The Black Phone
Granted, there were a handful of scenes that resonated with me emotionally. Madeleine McGraw‘s performance as Gwen, a young girl brutally abused by her father, was enough to have me bawling in the theater. McGraw is a firecracker and the lifeline of this film. As a whole, The Black Phone is hardly exciting. From its entire runtime, only one scene is genuinely frightening (you’ll know when you watch it). The rest of the film plays like a scary story you tell around the campfire… you’re terrified by the concept but ultimately unbothered due to the lack of reality. Scary movies work best when they pull you into the scene and make you feel involved. Throughout the duration of this film, it’s easy to feel unconcerned and detached from the danger. Moreover, The Grabber’s character feels as though his ‘madness’ dial was turned to a measly 5 out of 10. He feels unfinished, unexplored and unrelatable. The most frightening aspect of this film are Gwen’s dreams in which we see Hawke’s valiant rendition of a crazed kidnapper in contrast to a story that trips over its own slow-step.