The Black Phone
Scott Derrickson’s return to horror is a winningly creepy one
Ethan Hawke is not the first performer you envision when you think of “versatile actor,” and yet the American actor has deftly shifted between genres with an ease and variety that many others would envy. He’s flitted across action (Training Day (2001)), romance (Before Sunrise (1995)), superhero (Moon Knight (2022-)), science fiction (Gattaca (1997)), and horror (The Purge (2013)), making it look like a breeze along the way. It is perhaps because of this relative organic appearance to his performances, that many don’t appreciate the effort and skill that one must undertake to pull such versatility off. Hawke pushes even further into the constraints of his acting limitations, by returning to the horror genre, only this time playing the villain.
The Black Phone (2022) takes place in the northern Denver suburbs in 1978. Children keep disappearing after a man with black balloons known as The Grabber (Hawke) abducts them. Our protagonist Finny (Mason Thames), is a young, bullied boy, who unfortunately falls into The Grabber’s path. Finding himself in a concrete basement with only a bed and a disconnected black phone, Finny soon starts getting mysterious calls from the previous victims of The Grabber. Meanwhile, Finny’s young sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) begins having dreams littered with clues about where Finny is being held.
The Black Phone is adapted from a short story by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), and directed by Scott Derrickson, who returns to the horror genre that launched his career after his stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange (2016). Derrickson reunites with Hawke, with whom he made the chilling Sinister (2012). In The Black Phone, Derrickson slips back into horror beats with his refreshing patience and trust of viewers. Our characters are intelligent, not choosing the thoughtless path that many horror characters usually take to prompt more scares. Likewise, Derrickson roots his characters and horror elements in the unseen terrors of real life (bullies, domestic abuse) more than in the ghost story aspects. The few jump-scares that are littered in, are earned, and serve to move the story forward instead of reeling a quota of jolts from viewers.
The Black Phone is also able to succeed as a character story. Derrickson is blessed with casting two young, but extremely talented young actors. Thames is spectacular in both masking his emotional wounds, while also convincing viewers of the intelligence of Finny’s survival skills. Likewise, McGraw is a standout, nearly stealing the entire film with her bold no-nonsense take on Gwen, however, I was particularly moved with her harrowing performance during a scene depicting child abuse; the line between fiction and documentary almost seemed to blur. The two young performer’s chemistry helps ground the narrative with the sibling bond and love which powers both characters through. Hawke, meanwhile, is unhinged by Derrickson into playing the most terrifying villain he can imagine. Hawke, thankfully, doesn’t take this freedom into a direction of insanity, but instead of a creepy and silent hunger every time we see him gazing at Finny. For most of The Black Phone Hawke’s face is covered by a curiously morphing mask, which makes his menacing performance, using only select parts of his face that are visible even more impressive.
Derrickson has shown a deft hand in his horror films, of both patience with his plot, as well as character focused narrative. He’s one of the few directors, especially working in horror, that still trusts his audience to follow a plot along without having blocky exposition or oversimplified set-ups. This allows for a layered story whose tension and horror elements are executed with great effect. The Black Phone proves to be a winning return to horror for both Derrickson and Hawke, and uncovers two young performing gems, who anchor the film with the coolness of veterans.