Film Review: The Black Phone (2021)

The year is 1978, and for young Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), life in his small Denver suburb is anything but ideal. He is bullied in school, his father (Jeremy Davies) has abusive and alcoholic tendencies, and, to cap it all off, kids have been disappearing around his neighborhood, supposedly because of a child abductor nicknamed “The Grabber.” Despite these difficulties, Finney maintains a close bond with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) — the extent of which involves hurling rocks at the heads of her brother’s bullies — and forms a friendship with a boy named Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who encourages him to stand up for himself.

Things begin to go further sideways when two more kids vanish… one of whom is Robin. Strangely enough, this time is a bit different: Gwen begins having psychic dreams about these kidnappings. This catches the attention of two local detectives, which in turn catches Gwen more abuse from her father. Turns out, Finney and Gwen’s mother had these same types of dreams, and they ultimately led to her committing suicide; the siblings’ father cries that he doesn’t want the same to happen to Gwen as he beats her. Then, walking home one afternoon, Finney is grabbed by a man and thrown in the back of a black truck, unconscious. When he comes to, he finds himself trapped in a small room; on the wall behind him is a black phone with its cord cut.

The Black Phone is brought to life by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) and adapted from a short story written by Joe Hill. Highlighted by a performance from the ever-eclectic acting catalog of Ethan Hawke (with whom Derrickson previously collaborated on Sinister) the film is a thrilling addition to an already respectable bundle of this year’s horror flicks. Although it premiered at Fantastic Fest last September, The Black Phone has now finally hit theaters, and the timing could not be more appropriate.

With a wide release on June 24, the highly-anticipated film comes in between volumes one and two of Stranger Things season four, and seems to utilize the same nostalgia-ridden strategy of the Netflix show (save its generational difference). Set in the late seventies, The Black Phone certainly makes its setting abundantly clear, with its direct references to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and decade-defining needle-drops like Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” and Sweet’s “Fox on the Run.” Similarly, a comparison could certainly be made to Stephen King’s work with its story of juvenile horror and mysterious powers.

And while the film’s likeness to other beloved horror staples will be its main attribute, the selling point for me was Hawke’s performance. Though I must admit I felt some of the acting here to be less-than-genuine, The Grabber was a chilling persona that almost single-handedly made this a really fun watch. It’s especially impressive considering that Hawke’s face is, more often than not, covered either partially or fully by a mask; his physicality and lilting voice are more than enough to send chills down your spine. As if he needed it in the first place, The Black Phone only reiterates Hawke’s tremendous diversity as an actor.

The plot is cleverly constructed and very intentionally ties up all its loose ends, no matter how small. Throughout its runtime, the writers drop little narrative puzzle pieces which are eventually assembled into a complete picture by the end; not everything that comes to fruition is something you expect to, but it’s all quite satisfying regardless. My only quip is that even though each piece finds its place within the puzzle, it does feel like the writers were a bit too concerned with constructing a smooth ending instead of a generally smooth plot; some plot points exist merely to resolve during the climax, but don’t add much else to the story.

Despite these minor critiques, I had a really fun time with The Black Phone. A phenomenal headlining performance and intelligent screenplay make it a wholly gripping horror movie. If nothing else, it makes the wait for the Stranger Things finale a bit less painful.

Overall rating: 7/10

Published by Jeremy Bader

Aspiring writer, film and music lover, drummer.

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