Based on the 2004 short story penned by Joe Hill, The Black Phone is a horror thriller that combines modern themes and storytelling with the visual style of classic 70s horror. Creepy, eerie and immensely suspenseful, director Scott Derrickson has re-teamed with Ethan Hawke for what is one of the horror events of the year. It focuses on a young boy who is abducted and locked in a basement all alone, until he begins receiving mysterious calls on a phone that shouldn’t be working.
The Black Phone is an exhibition of high-quality scares, brutal tension and edge-of-seat thrills, all within a narrative that doesn’t try to do too much. Generally in a horror thriller, the story is a conduit to get you from one scare to the next. Sure, it can be more complex and thematically deep in some instances, but most of the time simplicity is key. The Black Phone hooks you with a simple premise and hints of an intriguing mystery, then just lets the suspense build without the need to overly explain every morsel of information. If you have important questions, they’ll most certainly be answered, and if your question isn’t answered, it probably wasn’t important to the story. With unnecessary details cut out, Scott Derrickson is able to send you on a thrilling ride with a focus on maintaining a terrifying tone and subverting expectations across the narrative and horror elements.
Speaking purely on a story level, I love how Scott Derrickson really effectively fleshes out his characters in such a short amount of time. As much as I loved the horror elements, the emotion he weaves into Finney’s (Mason Thames) journey makes the climax so much more impactful. The first act, which largely follows our lead kids navigating the struggles of school, facing bullying and issues at home, made for some of my favourite moments. It creates an emotional connection that enhances the suspense as time goes on. In terms of the horror itself, jump-scares are almost entirely absent from this film – with Derrickson relying predominantly on tone and atmosphere to remain terrifying. With no shortage of tension from beginning to end, the film nails every instance of horror with absolutely no misses.
I also want to touch on the fact that visually, this is a gorgeously shot and framed horror film. Considering much of the film is set within a single room, there were a number of shots throughout that used the foreground/background quite creatively to enhance the horrifying nature of some key moments. In a strange turn of events, I didn’t feel like the room was being shot to emphasise a claustrophobic sense, rather it was being framed in a way that made it look much larger. I don’t know if that was intentional, but I quite liked it as a different approach.
Performance-wise, there’s absolutely no looking past Ethan Hawke, who is having one hell of a year. Hidden behind a chilling mask, Ethan manages to convey all sorts of emotions and be grippingly menacing through using just his eyes and voice. He doesn’t say a lot, but he’s compelling nonetheless every time he’s on screen. I was completely unaware of youngster Mason Thames prior to this film, but it’s clear the kid has chops when it comes to leading a film and bringing charisma to the role. But the standout for me is Madeleine McGraw, who I loved as Gwendoline. Her character’s journey adds an extra layer to what is already a chilling story, and Madeleine nails the performance – bringing sass, heart and a strong attitude to the film. From what I understand, her entire arc is an addition on top of Joe Hill’s original story, and I loved every second of its inclusion.
In the end, I was locked-in for the entirety of The Black Phone – just completely drawn into the world and gripped by the immense levels of tension and suspense. The simple narrative allows the horror to take centre-stage in every moment, with some nice heartwarming beats creeping through here and there. Scott Derrickson can be a little hit or miss, but he once again proves his capability to be a strong horror director with what may be his best film yet. Horror thriller fans will certainly get a kick out this spine-chilling flick, complete with a great Ethan Hawke performance to go along with it.