THE BLACK PHONE (2022) – Horror Movie Based on Joe Hill’s Short Story Among Best Horror of the Year

I’m ba–ack!

Yes, I’m happy to say that for the first time since pre-Covid days, since April 2020, I finally returned to the movie theater! While I continued to review movies at home over the various streaming services, it just wasn’t the same. I can’t tell you how good it felt to watch a movie on the big screen again! Actually, I can tell you: it felt friggin good!

And I chose a pretty good movie to see as well, because THE BLACK PHONE (2022) is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen this year.

Mind you, I haven’t seen a whole lot of horror movies this year. But still!

THE BLACK PHONE takes place in 1978 and is the story of a serial killer known as The Grabber who drives a black van and snatches children off the streets. Finney (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) go about their business as best they can, dealing with school and bullies and their alcoholic single dad who can’t get over the death of their mom, and they try not to think much about The Grabber, but things change when one of Finney’s best friends becomes the killer’s latest victim.

Gwen, who like her mother before her, has dreams which sometimes are vision of real things, sees black balloons in one of her dreams about one of the missing children, and when the police catch wind of this, they are intrigued because it’s a detail from the abductions that was never leaked to the public, and so they want to know who told her that. In one of the movie’s livelier scenes, Gwen tells the police it was only a dream and pushes back against their suspicions that she, a young girl, may have inside information about the abductions. She does tell them that she sometimes sees things in her dreams that prove to be real.

And when Finney becomes the next victim of The Grabber, Gwen tries to force herself to dream about him, but that’s not how things work. Finney, now a prisoner, finds himself locked in a basement room with only a mattress and a disconnected black phone, with little hope of escaping the weird Grabber (Ethan Hawke) who speaks to him from behind various eerie and chilling masks. But when the disconnected phone rings, and Finney answers it, he hears the voice of one of the Grabber’s victims. Through the black phone, Finney hears from all of the Grabber’s victims, each with veiled advice on how he can possibly escape.

THE BLACK PHONE was directed by Scott Derrickson, a talented director whose previous horror movies include THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), SINISTER (2012), and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). These are all pretty decent horror movies, with SINISTER probably being his best-known horror flick, but his work here on THE BLACK PHONE is by far his best.

First off, he captures the look and feel of 1978 perfectly, and I should know, as in 1978 I was about the same age as main character Finney. There’s even a scene where Finney and Gwen are home watching the TV show EMERGENCY!, which was the show back then for kids and teens of a certain age. But Derrickson does more than just capture the period. He’s made a movie that is actually scary, which is a rare thing these days. It’s scary because he does a great job with the characters, making Finney and Gwen two young characters you really care about. He does it without jump scares or gratuitous violence and gore. And he does it through compelling storytelling.

Of course, he’s working with superior source material, as the screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill was based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, who’s a terrific writer. Cargill also wrote SINISTER, as well as the first DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) movie, which Derrickson also directed.

The story here combines the lurid tale of a creepy serial killer of children, with the supernatural goings-on of both Gwen’s dreams and the black phone itself, along with the raw unpleasantness of life for these kids even without The Grabber in their neighborhood, as Finney’s and Gwen’s dad is not only drinking all the time but he’s also abusive. And the story takes the time to even explain their dad’s abusiveness— not to excuse it away— but to show why, that is he is stuck in grief over his wife’s suicide, who took her own life when the voices inside her head became uncontrollable, which is why he is merciless towards Gwen when she speaks of her dreams because he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his daughter. It’s all superior storytelling.

The casting is also a strength.

The two child leads are fantastic. Mason Thames is perfect as Finney, the kid who can’t stand up for himself yet possesses strength he didn’t know he had, strength he will need when he fights for his life against The Grabber. And Madeleine McGraw is equally as good as Gwen. She has some of the best scenes in the movie, when she shows off her fiery personality, like when she comes to the rescue of her brother when he’s being beat up by bullies. But her best moment is one of the most emotional moments of the entire movie, the scene where her dad uses a whip on her in retaliation for the police having visited him at work with questions about her dreams. The emotions she brings out in this scene are way above what you would expect in a horror movie.

And Ethan Hawke is completely creepy and sinister as The Grabber. And he performs without really showing his face, not until the end, and that’s because he’s always wearing a mask, or a variation of the same mask.

Actually, the argument can be made that the true star of this movie is the mask created by horror icon Tom Savini. It is creepy!!!

Getting back to Ethan Hawke for a moment, what makes his performance so unsettling is he doesn’t play The Grabber like some ultimate evil monster or some vicious mindless killer, but instead he plays him with a sense of comical absurdity. With the mask and make-up, he’s almost Joker-like. There was also something in Hawke’s cadence and delivery that made me think of Michael McKean.

Scott Derrickson also frames several scenes to perfection. The scene where Finney is warned not to take the bait and exit through the unlocked door because it’s a trap set by The Grabber, and in the next shot we see the shirtless masked Grabber sitting with a whip in hand just waiting for Finney to walk by him is shiver-inducing. There are several scenes like this.

I also enjoyed THE BLACK PHONE more than HORNS (2013), the film version of Joe Hill’s novel. While I liked that movie, it didn’t completely work for me. But THE BLACK PHONE does. It’s my favorite film version so far of a Joe Hill story, who as I said is an exceptional horror writer. And for those of you who don’t know, not that it matters, but he’s also the son of Stephen King.

THE BLACK PHONE is on par with my other favorite horror movie so far this year, X (2022), but I think I was even more impressed with THE BLACK PHONE because it’s scarier, and it scares without using as much blood and gore as was found in X.

If you like to be scared, you’ll love THE BLACK PHONE. Not only is it frightening, but it scares on multiple levels: serial killer, supernatural, and real-life.

I’d say more, but… there’s a phone ringing on the wall behind me that I have to answer.

Hey, there wasn’t a phone there, before.

—END—

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