The Black Phone
the black phone | scott derrickson | c. robert cargill | mason thames | madeleine mcgraw | ethan hawke | ghost | ghosts | haunted | haunting | haunted house | modern gothic | based on | short story | joe hill | thriller | united states | jeremy davies | james ransone
Film: The Black Phone
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and Ethan Hawke
This is a movie that I was excited to see. It has an interesting history that it was supposed to be released, then got pushed back for whatever reason. Looking into it, this received positive feedback so they wanted more of a summer release. Going along with that, I enjoy Scott Derrickson’s movies that I’ve seen. It was nice to see him teaming back up with Ethan Hawke here as well. What I didn’t realize until closer to its release was that this was based off a Joe Hill’s short story. I’m a fan of his and his father, Stephen King. This isn’t a story I’ve read though.
Synopsis: after being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s earlier victims.
This takes place back in 1978. We are at a baseball game where Finney (Mason Thames) is on the mound pitching to Bruce (Tristan Pravong). Finney has a good arm and has Bruce down in the count. It doesn’t end how our lead wants it to though and Bruce is the hero. We see that the latter is a good kid.
I’ve said that this takes place in the past and I should point out that this is in Denver, Colorado. In the area, there is a series of boys disappearing. The police do not have any leads though. Newspapers are dubbing the person as the Grabber. It sets up to us that this is Hawke. He drives a black van and wears different masks.
To set up more about our lead, Finney has a younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). They live with their alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies). He is abusive. There is a powerful scene where he punishes Gwen because the police seek him out at work. Detective Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Miller (Troy Rudeseal) are doing what they can to find The Grabber. Gwen tells something to Bruce’s younger sister that upsets her. The police want to know how she knows this information since it wasn’t given to the public. Gwen has dreams and Terrence wants to beat it into her to stop telling people. This family knows tragedy with what happened to Terrence’s wife and their mother.
Finney also deals with bullying at school. He is friends with Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) who knows how to fight and won’t take grief from anyone. When he’s taken, it hits even closer to home for Finney. That is until he’s taken by The Grabber.
As the synopsis states, he’s kept in a soundproof basement. The Grabber brings him food when he can and tells the boy he won’t hurt him. There is something off about him and what he says though. Finney also seems to have abilities like his sister. The phone in the basement isn’t connected, but it rings. On the other end are other victims of The Grabber. They tell him what they know and what they tried to escape. It is a tightrope that Finney must walk to survive. All the while, his sister tries to find him through her dreams. It isn’t an exact science though either.
That is where I’m going to leave my recap and introduction to the characters. Where I want to start is that I will be seeking out this short story to see what Hill wrote and what was on the screen. I should point out that my wife, Jaime, also saw this with me. She was leery, especially with us expecting a child of our own. I convinced her that it wasn’t necessarily the movie she was expecting which helped. Not to play my hand too early, but we both enjoyed this one.
With that out of the way, this is a modern gothic story. The ghosts aren’t the villain here. They are helping Finney, but they can’t come out and tell him things. I thought it was interesting that in death, they don’t remember their names. They remember certain things and that feels like something you’d get from Charlotte Brontë or other writers from that era. I liked even more that they could only tell him what their plans were to survive their time being kept there. It didn’t work for them as they’re dead. Everything that is told to Finney comes into play later which I thought was excellent writing. This was one of my favorite parts.
Where I’ll go next then would be the idea of family. Terrence isn’t a bad guy. He’s depressed and his way of coping is through drinking alcohol. His wife passing away has destroyed him. He abuses Gwen physically. He explains why later. Although I don’t agree with him and what he’s doing, I understand it. I told Jaime during the movie that I’m glad they did this though as it humanizes him. Despite his condition, he loves his children and trying to protect him. He goes about in the wrong way. The effects of what he’s doing has taken its toll. Finney is timid. He lacks confidence and it gets him bullied. Gwen on the other hand is feisty. She does something in defense of her brother that I wasn’t expecting. She won’t give up looking for him either. McGraw is great here and she is mouthy. That adds comedy for me while also being a great performance despite her age.
I want to shift away from the story for a minute to go into the effects. This movie is brutal in its depiction of violence. I don’t mean this in a bad way as it doesn’t go over the top. Seeing Terrence hit Gwen with the belt hurt me. Seeing what she does to defend Finney during a fight shocked me. We also have Robin fighting a bully that I wasn’t expecting the movie to go to the places that it did. There are a majority of practical effects and I was impressed. We do get a bit of CGI, but that is done quick. There are things with the ghosts as well which look good. It can be jarring at times. There were a couple jump scares that got Jaime. I would also say that the cinematography here is good. We see enough, but we don’t linger to critique. I give credit here for sure.
Now to get back to the story with the last bit I wanted to go into, which is the psyche of The Grabber. The movie doesn’t delve too much into it, but I think enough is given to us. Jaime leaned over to me while we were watching this and said that she felt he had multiple personalities. I can see this. I know one of the major attributes for this is that the other personalities don’t know each other. How The Grabber is feeling is reflected in the masks that he wears. There is one that doesn’t have a mouth that is indifferent. There is a smiling face which brings Finney food and states that he wants the boy to be able to leave. There is the angry one though that wants to inflict pain. The Grabber has a game that it wants to play and it makes him frustrated when his victim won’t. This is a heavy subject matter for sure.
I think the acting is where I’ll go next. I’ve already said how well I thought Hawke did here. He isn’t in the movie as much as I would expect, but he does a great job. I thought that Thames was solid as our lead. It does well in showing him as a character and then seeing the effects of his life. We then see how he incorporates that to survive. McGraw was also good as his sister. What is interesting there is that she has a question of faith. I can relate to that. Davies is solid as the father. Mitchell and Rudeseal both work as our detectives. I like that we have a cameo by James Ransone. I thought and all the victims/ghosts were solid as well. The acting is good across the board.
The last bits would be with the filmmaking. I think that the cinematography is well done here. I like what they do with the credits. It feels a bit like what James Bond films are famous for with giving us images that make sense later. This also feels like it is taking place in the 1970s so I give credit to how this was shot. Other than that, I thought the soundtrack worked as well. It isn’t the best I’ve seen in a Derrickson movie, but it worked. It helps when needed to build tension. How Hawke talks as the different versions of his character, which is credit to him and the sound design as well.
In conclusion, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. We are getting a modern gothic tale. I like how it sets up Finney and Gwen as well as how that will come back into play later. The acting is good. I like the story and how the writing introduces things that come back in later. This also explores darker sides of humanity. It also makes me want to read the short story as well. There aren’t any glaring issues here. This is a solid studio horror movie for me.
My Rating: 8 out of 10