The Black Phone
After spending some time with Dr. Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Scott Derrickson returns to the horror genre with The Black Phone. I've really been looking forward to seeing Derrickson back in his element, especially because this film reunites Derrickson with Ethan Hawke, whom he previously directed in his best film Sinister. Sinister also happened to be one of the scariest and most effective horror films of the 2010s...so The Black Phone already had a lot to live up to. The question is, is the film up to the task?
The Black Phone follows Finney (Mason Thames), a young teenage boy who often finds himself the target of bullying at school. He doesn't usually stick up for himself because his friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) or his scrappy younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) usually step in to protect him when he needs it. But he and the town have bigger problems than bullies--kids seem to go missing left and right and no one can seem to find the culprit, whom the town has dubbed "The Grabber". Before he knows it, Finney finds himself as The Grabber's next victim and is locked away, though he soon discovers he may have some unexpected advice from beyond the grave on how to escape.
The Black Phone is a solid kidnapping thriller with elements of supernatural horror sprinkled in. Though Derrickson does an effective job of mixing in the horror here and there, I definitely felt that he could have leaned more into the scares--especially giving more lead-up to its introduction in the film. The film contains some excellent jump scares but doesn't rely enough on its villain, or the supernatural element to keep us scared. While Mason Thames is a fine lead and carries the weight of the film well, Ethan Hawke can't help but steal the show as the menacing Grabber and it's hard not to want the film to focus more on him. I'd have loved to hear more of his backstory and what drove him to become who he is, or just more from his own mouth about his experiences with his other victims. Instead, the film focuses on less interesting subplots like Finney's magically psychic sister and his abusive father (both characters who feel like they're straight from the Stephen King playbook). Gwen needed either more time to develop as a character or to have her storyline completely scrapped in favor of more time with Grabber or his victims. While she has some welcome comedic moments in the film, her efforts come off feeling like a deus ex machina that undercuts Finney's own efforts at escape.
Those minor gripes aside, the film still really works. The premise really draws you in and it's effectively told. Derrickson really knows how to bring in the tension and that's once again true here. He's always been great at pulling off a good jump scare and The Black Phone definitely got me more than once. Had the film been just a bit more fleshed out I think it could have pushed the quality to the level of Sinister and been really great. As it stands, The Black Phone is still a very good horror film and I definitely hope this isn't the last collaboration of Derrickson and Hawke.