I’m a huge fan of Scott Derrickson. I love The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Doctor Strange, I really like Sinister, and I even enjoy Deliver Us from Evil, so from the second I heard Derrickson was directing an adaptation of the Joe Hill short story “The Black Phone,” I absolutely couldn’t wait to see this movie. It was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.
Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, The Black Phone stars Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, and Jeremy Davies. It’s about a young kid named Finney who’s kidnapped by a serial killer known as the Grabber, and the guy locks him in a soundproof basement with a black phone that doesn’t work. However, The Grabber’s previous victims use the phone to mystically communicate with Finney, so with their help, he has a chance to escape. At the same time, his sister Gwen experiences psychic visions and dreams about her brother’s whereabouts, and she tries to lead the police to the Grabber’s house before it’s too late.
I have to be honest, as excited as I was for The Black Phone, I was a bit nervous going into it. I wasn’t sure how well this short story would work as a feature length film, but that fear ended up being completely unwarranted.
For starters, Finney and his younger sister Gwen are the heart and soul of this movie, and they’re one of the best brother-sister duos I’ve seen in a long time. Actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw have excellent chemistry together, and they balance each other out almost perfectly.
Thames gives a really low-key and understated performance as Finney, but McGraw plays Gwen as a sassy, high-energy, in-your-face girl, and that combination is cinematic gold. I completely bought into their relationship right from the start, and I loved every frame they shared together in the first act of The Black Phone.
That being said, I don’t think Finney worked quite as well on his own in this part of the movie. Whenever he was on screen without his sister, he was a little bit bland, so I wasn’t completely on board with him. However, he got way better as the film progressed, and by the time the credits began to roll, my feelings about him had completely changed. I found myself rooting for him really hard soon after he was kidnapped by the Grabber, so he actually ended up becoming one of my favorite characters in any horror film this year.
In contrast, Gwen was great from beginning to end, with or without Finney. Like I said, she’s very sassy and in-your-face, and that makes for some surprisingly hilarious moments. For example, there’s a scene where she’s talking to a few police officers at school, and some of the things she says had me laughing way harder than I ever thought I would with this movie.
On top of that, The Black Phone also gives her an unexpected religious side, and as a Christian myself, I found it very relatable and refreshing. See, most religious characters in horror films are either naively unrealistic or caricaturistic and hypocritical, but Gwen breaks that mold.
She’s a great example of what a real Christian is like (flaws and all!), and her experiences with her faith do an excellent job of representing what it really feels like to practice Christianity. In that sense, she reminded me a lot of David in the Stephen King novel Desperation. I’m pretty sure King isn’t religious, but that book explores God and faith in a way that feels honest and true to life, and The Black Phone does the same thing on a smaller scale.
Along similar lines, the Grabber’s previous victims are also really likable and easy to root for. Granted, they don’t get nearly as much to do as Gwen and Finney, but for the short time you see them on screen and hear their voices, they’re all great. Then, at the end of the film, there’s a scene where they all come together in a really cool way, and it cements this entire group as some of the best protagonists of the year.
Moving on to the horror, this part of The Black Phone is just as good as I’ve come to expect from Scott Derrickson. For instance, it has a bunch of super effective jump scares (and they’re not cheap!) and some really chilling imagery, and when the Grabber’s previous victims talk to Finney, Derrickson visualizes them in a very creepy way.
On top of all that, Ethan Hawke also gives an amazing performance as the Grabber. He admittedly doesn’t get a ton to do, but he makes the most of the little bit the script does give him, and he absolutely nails every tone the movie requires him to hit. For example, sometimes he’s straight up menacing, other times he’s tender with just a hint of sinister undertones, and there’s even a brief moment when he comes across as a bumbling idiot. He’s just about perfect in this role, and he grounds the entire story by making you scared for Finney, which in turn makes you much more scared of the Grabber too.
As you can probably tell, I really loved The Black Phone. I don’t think it’s my favorite Scott Derrickson film (that’s still The Exorcism of Emily Rose), but in my opinion, it’s one of the best horror movies of 2022. It has great characters and great scares, and it tells a captivating story about a kid fighting for his life, so if you’re looking for some good new horror to watch, I highly recommend that you check this film out.
The Black Phone hits theaters on June 24.