Based on the award-winning short story by Joe Hill, “The Black Phone” is a dark thriller with a surprising sense of optimism. This mash-up of a serial killer and supernatural ghost tale features impressive performances from the entire cast, is genuinely scary, and is translated well to the screen by director Scott Derrickson.
Set in Denver in 1978, shy and bullied 13-year-old boy Finney (Mason Thames) lives with his widowed, alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). He’s having problems at school and at home, and is dealing with his own family trauma.
A series of strange kidnappings has rocked their town, and young boys, including some of Finney’s friends, have gone missing. Finney becomes the next victim when he is abducted by the sadistic killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). He is taken to a dark basement and is held captive, given little food and water. Things look hopeless — until a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring. When Finney answers, he discovers he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. Throughout his ordeal, Finney is aided by the ghosts of the past.
It’s a creepy story with a very grim tone, and plays more like a coming-of-age horror thriller than a straight-up fright flick. While there are the requisite jump scares and a few bloody images, this isn’t traditional horror. It feels different and is very effective. Blending supernatural elements works well in the narrative, as Gwen has special gifts where visions come to her in her dreams. She’s able to help the police (even though they may be too late to save her brother), and in a refreshing twist, they actually believe her.
The retro setting is perfect for the story, and it feels like it’s something that could’ve actually happened. There’s a great deal of intensity and suspense, and the characters are well-developed. I can’t praise the acting enough, with newcomer Thames easily having the talent to carry the entire film. While Hawke spends the majority of the film hidden behind a mask, he’s truly terrifying. The supporting cast is just as excellent, with charisma to spare.
Those seeking a solid thriller should check out “The Black Phone.” It’s difficult to watch at times, but it’s wholly satisfying to watch a young boy attempt to outwit, fight, and escape his sadistic abductor. The film will keep you on the edge of your seat until the end.