I Just Watched The Black Phone
Thursday night, I went to see a showing of The Black Phone. If you have not seen one of the many trailers for The Black Phone, here it is above.
This is a general review of the film where I will start with the basics of what the film is and then will go into breaking down its strengths, weaknesses, criticisms, and some big takeaways/analyses. If you want to watch the movie, stick to the first paragraph or two, and then go watch it (and then come back to this); if you’ve watched the film, read the whole thing.
The Wikipedia description of the Black Phone:
The Black Phone is a 2021 American supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, whom both produced with Jason Blum. It is an adaptation of the 2004 short story of the same name by Joe Hill. The film stars Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, and Ethan Hawke. In the film, an abducted teenager (Thames) uses a mysterious phone to communicate with the previous victims of his captor (Hawke).
HOW I WOULD DESCRIBE THE BLACK PHONE:
The Black Phone is a Horror movie that is 65% Thriller and 35% True Crime with supernatural/fantastical elements.
WHAT WAS MY IMMEDIATE REACTION OUT OF THE THEATER:
The moment trailers for other Horror movies began, I knew I had made a mistake going to a 9:40 PM showing by myself. I should have gone to see this movie with friends during the daytime. Instead, I had some fucked up sleep and kept thinking I was seeing people who wanted to abduct me out of the corner of my eyes, even though I’m a 230 lb grown man; like Mac from It’s Always Sunny, I’m full of mass, it’s difficult to move me.
Essentially, this movie was terrifying. It is dark, demented, creepy, and some of the scariest moments were the ones grounded in reality. The way True Crime & Serial Killer documentaries, videos, and podcasts have pervaded mainstream culture has created a big disconnect where the fascination over the killers and their crimes sometimes overshadows the stories of the individual victims. In The Black Phone, the director (Scott Derrickson) makes a conscious effort to make us feel like we are standing alongside the main character (Mason Thames as Finney), and we also see/hear the perspective of previous victims. You feel trapped in the theater along with Finney and, at times, feel hopeless. When Finney feels terror, you feel terror, and that’s a big success for a Horror Film.
A lot of credit needs to go to Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke for the direction and feel of the film. Ethan Hawke’s character (The Grabber) is a cold, evil, psychopathic son of a bitch damaged in the head. Yet, they make an effort not to explain his character deeper than it is because there shouldn’t be any explanation or sympathy for this serial killer. The Grabber is a fucking monster who took the lives of kids, and what’s more important is the names who got taken rather than the person who is taking them.
WHAT ARE THE FILM’S WEAKNESSES AND GENERAL CRITICISMS:
The common complaint I see about the movie is that the trailer tells you most of what happens, the ending is a bit played out, and the story is too simple of a concept for a feature-length project.
My response to those:
- I think the trailer tells you the gist of what happens in the film; although, it’s more about the journey and all the steps in-between that makes this a good movie.
- The Black Phone got adapted from a short story, and the movie is an economic 103 minutes long. They don’t overstretch anything in this film, and while they could go into greater detail about the killer himself, as I mentioned above, the less we know, the better — we don’t need a character — we need a big bad who leaves us terrified.
Another issue I’ve seen people have is the supernatural/fantastical elements in the film. Which are… Spoiler warning:
Throughout the film, the main character’s sister (Gwen, played by Madeleine McGraw) has dreams where she can see certain things, and the main character talks to the past victims via the “Black Phone.” For those very into the True Crime aspects of this film, the supernatural elements can feel bizarre and out of place; however, I think they make the film weirdly more realistic and give the story a deeper meaning.
In the film, we see that some of Gwen’s dreams aren’t necessarily dreams. She comes from a traumatic home life where particular things seem to be getting repressed, to which when specific memories reappear in her sleep, she assumes them to be dreams/nightmares as any kid would. If you just want to believe she has this psychic ability, that is fine. When it comes to Finney’s connection to the Black Phone, it is all up to the viewer’s perspective. If you think it’s unrealistic that he might not be talking to the past victims, you’re likely correct. What’s key to remember is that this is Finney’s story, and for him to survive, maybe he needed to talk into that phone regardless of whether someone was on the other line talking. There are many stories of people escaping traumatic life/death experiences where they imagine someone set them free, and it was themselves.
It’s just not a perfect film. The writing could be cleaner in some areas, and there are moments in the movie where you just don’t believe Finney could get away doing certain things without getting noticed by the Grabber.
WHAT WERE THE BEST PARTS OF THIS MOVIE:
THE HORROR. THE HORROR. When it comes to Horror/Thriller films, Sound is such a crucial element, and the use of Sound/Sound Editing in the film is fantastic. Finney gets trapped in a soundproof room where nobody outside can hear him, which isn’t a new concept for Horror Films. What’s fascinating is how Derrickson manipulates the power of Sound. During the scenes where Finney is the loudest, you feel safe, and when he’s at his most quiet, the feeling of fear and tension comes over you. The same goes for the Grabber. When the Grabber is loud, it feels like smoke and mirrors, whereas when he’s silent, he’s like an animal waiting to strike his prey.
I was very impressed by the way this movie utilizes jump scares. Except for maybe once in the film, the way jump scares get used in The Black Phone is atypical and is a fresh take on the Horror tactic. The film does a great job of turning Horror/Killer tropes on their head and subverting expectations. Many things in this film aren’t perfect for a reason.
Last but not least, the best part of this film is the trio of leading actors: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, and Ethan Hawke. The Finney-Gwen brother-sister combo is a stellar connection throughout the film, and it’s about the best you can expect from two child actors getting asked to carry a Horror film. Ethan Hawke brings a level of physicality and psychosis to the film that is brutishly scary. His character feels imposing and weak at the same time. The weakness and mortality make you fear him because he’s not Jason Vorhees; he is an unhinged human you could bump into at 7–11. There’s a level of confidence and caution to the Grabber that is horrifying, and Ethan Hawke is really in his own realm when taking on the character.
MY FINAL GRADE: 9.2 out of 10 (A-)