Cards on the table, I’m in the pocket for anything to do with Joe Hill. Stephen King’s son wasn’t so when I came to him, instead merely stumbling across a copy of his first novel in Borders Booksellers (remember that place?). Eventually, I came to the two greatest works in his catalog – Horns, which received an interesting but forgotten adaptation in 2013, and a short story collection titled 20th Century Ghosts. Contained within the latter’s pages are several incredible works of fiction (some frightening, some silly, and one so beautiful I lost my breath a little), but the first to be adapted for the big screen is a creepy little number titled “The Black Phone.”
Enter the second component that makes this film a triumph. Scott Derrickson is responsible for such wonders as Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, films that live as lean and mean examples of what he can do. His writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, has been working with him for over a decade now and their talents have brought some of the best theatrical horror experiences in recent memory. The two have set their sights on Joe Hill and the result is terrific, if not truly terrifying, gut-punch of a film.
Their tale is one of young Finney (newcomer Mason Thames giving one of the better kid performances of 2022), a young boy living in a 1978 Denver suburb. The neighborhood is plagued with fear of a mysterious serial killer known only as “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke), a phantom that kidnaps children from the area and ostensibly kills them. Finney has enough else to worry about, from bullies to baseball to his violently alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies), but when he’s picked up by the killer the real fear begins. His sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), is a burgeoning telepath with dreams of dead children and serial killers that attempts to aid the police in finding her brother. Finney’s only true hope seems to be the unplugged black phone in the killer’s basement, which rings and rings with calls from dead children that hope to get revenge.
The biggest win of the film is Ethan Hawke, who once eschewed villain roles and has now begun to embrace them with pure revelry. His turn as The Grabber is the most frightening component of the film, creepy and disturbing in its humanity while retaining that otherworldly sensationalism that we lend to so many serial killers in the public consciousness. The mask, designed by horror legend Tom Savini, does a good amount of the heavy lifting. Hawke’s full face is almost never exposed. It keeps him inhuman even as his eyes convey a lot of emotion. He’s joined at the top of the pile by McGraw, a sassy young woman that can go toe to toe with every adult joining her onscreen. That’s a big deal when you’re working with Hawke and Davies, two mainstays and personal favorites of mine that can hold the screen with everything from a cry to a whisper.
The scares aren’t as plentiful as many are going to hope for, but when they pop they do so with gusto. I’m not a jump-scare type, instead preferring a looming dread in my horror, but Derrickson and Cargill have woven them into the fabric of a larger narrative with the skill it takes to effectively pull them off. The Black Phone is creepier than it is outright frightening, but that’s part of the charm. Every piece of the puzzle is plotted out with care, leading to a climax that is aggressive and impactful without overstaying its welcome.
Those familiar with Mark Korven (The Lighthouse, The Northman) are going to be quite pleased with what he’s cooked up here. The guy has always been best at crafting atmosphere instead of a more pronounced presence. Composers like Giacchino, Desplat, and even John Williams create music that is a character in and of itself, leaving composers like Korven and Mica Levi to do these types of scores instead. I think it works wonderfully, and I hope everyone gives it a listen.
There’s so much to go on about, but all I can say is that you need to get out and see this thing for yourself. The Black Phone is a breath of fresh air in a world where we live with everyday horrors far too often. I’m all too happy to see Scott Derrickson walk away from the world of Marvel and set his sights on this kind of fare.
The Black Phone is currently in theatres.