Review by Sean Boelman
Cinephiles everywhere were saddened when Scott Derickson decided to part ways with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but when it was revealed that this would allow him to return to his horror roots, that frown turned upside down. The Black Phone is a good, old-school studio horror flick, something which we’ve had a shortage of since the beginning of the pandemic.
Based on a short story by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, the film follows a young boy who is kidnapped by a serial killer and then begins to receive calls on a broken phone from past victims instructing him on how to escape. Like his father’s work, Hill’s stories are extremely dense and have plenty of material to work with, so Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill had plenty to expand into a feature.
The biggest issue in this movie is the dialogue. Much of the dialogue feels stilted and overwritten, especially that from the children. While this is effectively used for comedic effect a few times, many of the younger characters’ lines do not feel like something that anyone of that age would ever say.
That said, the delivery of the actors almost makes up for the shortcomings in the script. Ethan Hawke is absolutely menacing as the film’s antagonist, playing against his usual type in a way that is pretty chilling. There are some aspects of the character that feel underdeveloped, and unfortunately, Hawke’s phenomenal performance does call attention to some of those issues, but you simply cannot take your eyes off screen while Hawke is on there.
The main young actors in the movie are also surprisingly strong. Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw play brother and sister in the film exceptionally well and bring a lot to the roles. McGraw, in particular, has a few scenes in which killer comedic delivery makes what could have been cringe-worthy into a memorable moment.
Derrickson and Cargill attempt to work in some themes about trauma, guilt, religion, and the relationship between the three, but these ideas are lower-priority compared to the “scary guy kidnaps children” storyline. It’s understandable why — general audiences are more likely to care about the scarier plot — but there was so much potential for this to be something special.
There are also some really awesome things about the movie’s execution that don’t live up to their full potential. Derrickson shoots some parts of the film in the style of home video, in an apparent homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which is itself referenced several times in the movie), but it’s not consistent enough to make much of an impact. This is the nature of the whole film: almost there, but it doesn’t quite bring it in.
The Black Phone has quite a few shortcomings, but none of them are unforgivable. As a whole, this is a creepy, entertaining studio horror flick with a great performance by Ethan Hawke, and that’s more than enough to make it something to recommend.
The Black Phone screened at the 2022 Overlook Film Festival, which ran June 2-5.