Good choice, Scott Derrickson.
The “Doctor Strange” director was all set to direct the sequel, but shit happened and he found his way to “The Black Phone” instead. A twisted yet grounded take on the abducted child and the struggle to escape genre, which is fairly scant.
The ground isn’t as easy to cover as one cinephile would assume. You need a fairly sympathetic-looking antagonist, which Derrickson has here in Ethan Hawke. Known for playing a wide range of screen personalities-tortured heroes and unhinged anti-heroes alike-Hawke is a bad guy without a cause here.
A mysterious man with white paint or a mask covering his face, and a black van that screams four-alarm abducted fire if you ask me. It’s the obvious things, though, that can be disregarded in an instant interaction. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is heading home when Hawke’s “The Grabber” steps into his path with a stumble, offering up intrigue with the black balloons that catch the young man’s attention. Before he can blink twice, Finney wakes up in a basement all locked up and without food or water.
After being read the basic cinematic kidnapped character Miranda Rights, Finney starts hearing the supposedly dead black phone in his cell ring. Told that it is dead, the voices heard on the other end are the Grabber’s past victims. Can he use their collective advice-kids he used to know and look up to in school-and escape?
Derrickson’s film, adapted by the director and Robert Cargill from a short story by Joe Hill, keeps the audience uneasy and ready to fly off their seats throughout this seemingly straightforward setup. Since the audience knows who their main bad guy is, it comes down to whether or not the younger cast can become formidable opponents. The good news is that “The Black Phone” offers up an impressive ensemble of young avengers.
Thames gets all the screen time with Hawke and holds his own, but Madeleine McGraw’s Gwen-Finney’s relentlessly tough and loyal sister-is the character who steals this show. From the early scenes of torment from her abusive, alcoholic father (a haunting Jeremy Davies) to her selfless defense of her brother in school, it’s Gwen who becomes the neighborhood Sherlock Holmes once her brother goes missing. The role doesn’t call for much on paper, but McGraw grows a great role out of it on screen.
She voiced Katie in Netflix’s Oscar-nominated “The Mitchells versus The Machines” and played a young Hope in “The Ant-Man and The Wasp,” but it’s Gwen that represents her biggest role to date-especially if you consider the wide range for “The Black Phone’s” release.
What happens isn’t going to shock many fans of the horror thriller genre, but the “Stir of Echoes” adhesive the film gains with its “speaking with the dead to aid a rescue” hook makes it more memorable than most filmmakers could offer. I think a lot of directors do their best work after working with or leaving Marvel. The Russo Brothers hit grim yet powerful levels with “Cherry” after “Endgame,” and Jon Favreau churned out his most complete movie to date, “Chef,” after making two “Iron Man” sequels.
This is Derrickson’s first feature-length film in six years, following “Doctor Strange,” and this is him getting back in touch with his organic horror roots. The guy who did “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister” came to play here, crafting an aesthetic that reminded me of “Stranger Things” in a different U.S.A. town with all the charm and terror.
It takes the little things passed over in earlier scare films and uses those to get us out of our seats, literally. In the screening I attended, six people around me either jumped out of their seats or let out a medium-volume wail multiple times during “The Black Phone.” The camera shifts to its right in a dark room, and boom, a body suspended in midair turned upside down just appears out of nowhere. Simple instruments with a trusted recipe, yet cooked with more spice.
If this is what Derrickson is getting back into, I am game. Sam Raimi entered the Marvel realm in a big way and Scott got the heck out. “The Black Phone” is a solid thriller with a satisfying ending and a paralyzing scare tactic that will get you jumping.
Go see it at the Galleria 6 Cinemas in St. Louis, or wherever the movies are being shown near you.