Director(s): Scott Derrickson
Writer(s): Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw
When Scott Derrickson, who directed the first Doctor Strange, left Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness the pandemic that would ultimately shake up the world wasn’t even a thought, that’s how long ago it was. Derrickson cited creative differences as the reason the project ultimately fell through, and Kevin Feige doubled down on that sentiment this year when Multiverse of Madness finally made its way to the big screen. Marvel went on to hire Sam Raimi and Derrickson went on to make The Black Phone, and the rest has been history.
The biggest thing that The Black Phone showed me as a viewer was that Derrickson made the right choice leaving Marvel to do something more up his alley in the horror spectrum. The Sinister director assumedly wanted to take Multiverse of Madness in a more horror-filled way, more than what the MCU wanted from him. Derrickson got to make what he wanted in The Black Phone which is a dark, thrilling, and fun horror film.
The Black Phone stars Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a child kidnapper who has become almost as infamous as the boogeyman in this particular Denver suburb. When Finney (Mason Thames) is abducted by The Grabber, he starts to get calls on a disconnected phone from The Grabber’s previous victims trying to help him escape.
A director takes a major risk when using kids in any capacity to tell a story. Here, Derrickson put his faith in not just one kid, but a whole cast of them. Some of them didn’t quite pan out, but the brother-sister duo of Thames’ Finney and Madeleine McGraw’s Gwen really held this one up. Thames brought the fear as an abducted kid locked away in a basement and made every scene he was in believable. Finney’s journey towards self-confidence is believable because of how Thames crafts this character. However, it was McGraw’s Gwen that truly stole the show. Playing the stronger-willed younger sister, McGraw captivated the audience with both her humor and her horror. She stuck up for her older brother, not because she had to, but because she felt a calling to be a protector for not only her brother, but her abusive father as well.
Ethan Hawke as The Grabber was a mixed bag. While the performance given was strong, the character of The Grabber and Hawke himself both felt underutilized. When Hawke’s Grabber was on screen there was a sense of panic throughout. Questions began to arise about why and what is this for, but none of them were even close to being answered which created a sort of anti-climatic ending for his character. Forming a sort of boogeyman status among the town, mixed with the ever so creepy masks he wore throughout, I think I was wanting something more sinister from his character that the audience never really gets.
Derrickson and company do ask for quite a bit of suspended disbelief from the audience. The movie includes a lot of magical elements – The Grabber labeled himself a magician, Finney could speak to the afterlife, and Gwen had magical dreams/visions – but we never get into that section of the film. It primarily remains on the surface of what the story could have been and never gets into the really interesting aspects that are set up all throughout the runtime, leading to an exciting, but questionable climax.
This film does make up for these plot issues in purely tense moments, of which it is filled. Whether it be in Gwen’s grainy dreams or Finney’s imprisonment, you’re on the edge of your seat for much of the film. Derrickson, going back to his horror roots, does do a fantastic job of using comedy to disarm the viewer delivering a pretty dark punch. Could this film have gone a little darker, sure, but it still gets the horrors across in a very effective way.
The Black Phone will keep your attention throughout its short runtime. Its themes and characters might not be fully fleshed out or utilized, but the space in which they’re given is. Derrickson’s horror 70s aesthetic and scares add up to be a fun and brainless thriller.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.