Hand to Bible, Scott Derrickson’s 2012 horror film, Sinister, is one of the scariest horror films of modern times. Having started his career in the genre with such films as 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and 2014’s Deliver Us From Evil, Derrickson eventually teamed up with writer C. Robert Cargill where they created Sinister before venturing into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2016’s Doctor Strange. Now they have returned to the genre for their latest film, THE BLACK PHONE, based on Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, and though it doesn’t reach the same fever pitch of terror that Sinister did, it’s not far behind.
In THE BLACK PHONE, Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and is held captive in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.
What makes a film like this so scary is that, outside of the supernatural elements, it’s grounded in reality. Compared to today, the ’70s were a carefree time. Parents didn’t have to worry about locking their doors or crime taking place, especially in the suburbs. But during the late ’70s. which is when THE BLACK PHONE takes place, there had already been news of two huge kidnappings: the 1976 Chowchilla Kidnapper who kidnapped a school bus full of kids and buried them alive; and the 1974 abduction of Jan Brobergy by her neighbor, Robert Berchtold. But things were safer back then, and parents never think it’ll happen to them… until it does.
In this small Colorado town where we meet Finney and his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), six boys have been abducted by an individual known as The Grabber. Bringing this character to life is renowned actor Ethan Hawke who gives one of his best performances to date. Known for not taking many villain roles, Hawke surprised me with how chilling his performance was. At times flamboyant, Hawke was able to get a few laughs from the audience before it became abundantly clear that The Grabber was no laughing matter. However, once he donned the mask, designed by none other than Tom Savini, all humor evaporated. His depiction of this sadistic killer seemed almost effortless which I’m sure was partly due to his working relationship with director Scott Derrickson, whom he had worked with on Sinister.
Playing opposite Hawke is The Grabber’s new victim, Finney Shaw. A quiet 8th grader who finds himself dodging bullying and beatings from not only his classmates but his father (played by accomplished character actor, Jeremy Davies), as well. His only companions are Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), a tough-as-nails classmate who throws punches just as hard as he takes them, and his sister, Gwen, who finds herself at the mercy of her father’s belt. However, when Robin goes missing all bets are off. Shortly after a run-in with classmates, Finney ends up meeting a mysterious magician who asks if he wants to see a magic trick. And it’s here where everything quickly turns south for Shaw as he realizes he’s in the presence of The Grabber.
It’s a hell of a tall order to play opposite Ethan Hawke. And though I think Mason Thames gave it his all, I ultimately felt he was miscast. With only a few TV credits to his name, Thames lacked the acting chops and emotional depth needed to really give an impactful, memorable performance. On the other end of the spectrum is Madeleine McGraw who, in my honest opinion, stole the show as the wise-cracking, hilarious sister who experiences visions of the abducted victims. She gives a nearly flawless performance that’s electrifying and offers some comic relief to soften the more harsh aspects of the film. Speaking of comic relief, James Ransone, who appeared in Sinister as Deputy So and So, does a great job of elevating the more humorous moments. I just wish he had more of a larger role in the film.
Derrickson and his screenwriting partner C. Robert Cargill crafted a terrifying film that reminds viewers of the reality of the horrors lurking outside the door, and sometimes in our own neighborhood. Surprisingly, while watching the movie, I found myself teetering on the edge of my seat, unsure of what was to come. Derrickson and Cargill built up the tension slowly, allowing the audience to form an emotional bond with Finney and Gwen, before ripping the rug out from beneath us. But what I really appreciated about their approach to the film and subject matter is it wasn’t gratuitous in regards to showing what The Grabber does to these kids. It’s unspoken. And for that I’m grateful.
I can’t end this review without talking about some of the exceptional below-the-line work done to make this film what it is. Crafting a brilliant yet haunting score is composer Mark Korven (The Lighthouse, The Witch) which ties in beautifully with Brett Jutkiewicz’s (Scream, Ready or Not) cinematography. Jutkiewicz captured one of my favorite shots featuring Hawke sitting in a chair, belt in hand, awaiting his prey. It’s a simple shot with no dialogue but the intensity and terror behind it made it one of the most memorable scenes. Additionally, the editing work by Frederic Thoraval, who also worked on Sinister, was excellent especially when it came to Finney conversing with the victims who died at the hands of The Grabber.
Overall, I was impressed with THE BLACK PHONE. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s better than Sinister, but it does share a lot of similar beats that’ll be enjoyable for fans. Its biggest selling point? It’s scary. It features a jumpscare that quite literally had me jumping out of my seat. Derrickson and Cargill know how to unsettle and frighten their audience and they have succeeded once again with THE BLACK PHONE. With this being one of the best horror films of the year, you won’t want to miss this call no matter what terror awaits on the other end.
THE BLACK PHONE will ring for you in theaters on June 24, 2022.
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