Scott Derrickson adapts this short story by Joe Hill into a thrilling and effective horror film. In just two horror films (Sinister and The Black Phone), Derrickson has developed quite a distinct style with his use of Super 8 film, his focus on horror within families, and his fascination with the past as a malevolent force. The Black Phone works not because the horror is particularly fresh but because the story of a young boy's fight for survival works so well as a fable about standing up for one's self.
Hitting theaters Friday, The Black Phone reteams Derrickson with Ethan Hawke, this time playing a sinister kidnapper and murderer known as The Grabber. That isn't the only thing that connects the chilling Sinister to this film. Images of dead and scraggly trees, kids in peril who become apparitions, and killers with unusual fashion are becoming signatures to his horror films. Joe Hill's short story will likely draw comparisons to his father's work, Stephen King. However, the message of perseverance is stronger here than in any recent King adaptation. While there may be familiar elements present, The Black Phone is very much its own film.
At the film's start, we see a young boy's moment of baseball glory get cut short by the presence of a black van. The children all know about The Grabber, a serial killer who is taking young boys. We meet Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) and her older brother Finney (Mason Thames) early on. Gwen has dreams or visions that relate to the missing children. Her mother had similar visions and committed suicide. Their father is regularly drunk and abusive. Finney is bullied at school regularly. He also is scared of The Grabber and doesn't even want Gwen to say his name. The film is careful to take its time early on here to make both Gwen and especially Finney relatable, likable, and worth rooting for. We get to learn a fair amount about them while the film perfectly captures the late 1970s and the freedom children had during that era.
Creeping into almost every scene is some sort of violence. Aside from the bullying and abuse, Finney is also surrounded by school fights, frog dissections, and horror films on TV. His friend Robin (Miguel Cararez Mora) is the toughest kid at school and tells him early on that Finney will have to stand up for himself one day. This lesson becomes urgent when Finney is kidnapped and wakes up in a concrete basement. Finney quickly knows where he is after Robin and the other kids have gone missing. The prison he finds himself in is sparse, with a dirty mattress, a high window, a toilet, and a black phone with a severed cord. Finney is soon routinely visited by The Grabber, who wears ever-changing combinations of a creepy mask. The black phone also begins to ring periodically. On the other end of the line are the voices of the children The Grabber has taken. They begin to help Finney.
Hawke brings a lot to the table and his performance here is no exception. The Grabber is written as a somewhat stock killer but Hawke gives him layers through the use of his voice and body movements. Seriously, his vocal performance is masterful here as it shifts between being childish and cruel. McGraw is a standout as Gwen, a foul-mouthed young girl who knows she is gifted even when her father beats her for thinking her visions mean something. Luckily the film's two detectives believe her, a rarity in the genre. The highlight performance comes from Thames as Finney. Finney has a wonderfully traced character arc as he goes from timid to defiant against those that want to hurt him and Thames sells every bit of it.
It is that element of innocence and maturation that gives The Black Phone resonance. Elements of the film are familiar and the script can't avoid some cliches of the genre. However, it very effectively traces that growth within Finney as he learns how to defend himself. Combine that with Derrickson's confident direction and ability to sustain dread for almost the entire film and The Black Phone sits with X as one of the best horror films so far this year.