Some Body on the Line – The Black Phone (2022)

I am doing my best to get through a bust weekend of movies, so bear with me. Blumhouse continues to be a marquee name in horror thanks to projects like their latest. The Black Phone is a chilling blend of serial killer and supernatural horror that’s amplified by its haunting authentic style and key performances. 

A 13-year-old boy is abducted by a child killer that’s been tormenting a Denver neighborhood. When he wakes up in a soundproof basement, the fight for his life begins but he’s not as alone as it first seems. 

This film was initially slated to be released at the beginning of 2022 but new Covid variants pushed it back to the summer and that was probably for the best. Scott Derrickson’s thriller already had plenty of buzz surrounding it and the appetite was clearly there, so a few extra months of simmering only added to the excitement. Writing with frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill (Sinister, Doctor Strange) to adapt Joe Hill’s short story, Derrickson was able to find the right voice and the right vision to bring the story to life on the big screen. 

Derrickson doing a little coaching of Mason Thames on set (photo credit: LA Times)

It’s something that gets easily and often overlooked in film, but character foundation is a must. A good story doesn’t matter if nobody cares about who’s in it, and Cargill and Derrickson understand that. It may have been tempting to jump into the deep end with such a fantastic villain at their disposal, but they took the time to keep him in the background while building the other characters and there are multiple benefits. The first is that the audience has time to get to know the kids and the community that is under attack, so there’s an investment in their pain. What you find out as that going on is that there is more to these kids’ plight than just the serial killer stalking their community and there’s more humanity in that. Secondly, the general premise was already given away in the trailers so gradually building the anticipation helped amplify the struggle that we knew was already coming. It’s a great piece of writing that understands the structure of fear. 

It’s not easy to emote from behind a mask, but Hawke makes it count

Obviously, a big part of this film’s appeal was Ethan Hawke playing “The Grabber.” He’s exceedingly creepy in the role, apparently inspired partly by John Wayne Gacy, and his body language is working overtime from behind a variety of masks. There are some subtle context clues as to the different versions of the mask that could have been very interesting to explore and I heard that a sequel was being discussed, so here’s hoping! Either way, Hawke is one of my favorite performers and the mask actually makes the scenes where he’s unmasked even more volatile and unnerving. 

Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are fantastic

While he’s the catalyst, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are the engines. They play siblings, Finney and Gwen, respectfully and are both excellent. If they were both good individually, great, there’s nothing wrong with that but the key that made it click for me was their bond as brother and sister. Again, this goes back to Derrickson and Cargill taking the time to make sure the audience has a chance to see that relationship at its core. A big benefit of the film being R-rated was that they (and the rest of the kids) were written as authentic adolescents, profanity included. We have seen other films that revolve around groups of kids this age, but this one was much more rooted in real childhood trauma than its counterparts. There are a handful of scenes that lay out just how profound the effects of that trauma are and, while they are hard to watch, it feels much more real and earns their narrative the hard way. 

Jeremy Davies deserves credit for what he brought to this film

In mentioning those scenes, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out the performance of Jeremy Davies. I have seen him often playing spindly, frail characters but he was almost as menacing as “The Grabber” in this film. Davies plays Finney and Gwen’s abusive, alcoholic father and his fuse is frighteningly short. He’s so good, that you never know what’s going to happen when they are all on screen together but you know the kids are terrified. The abuse is made emphatically clear in a fantastic, albeit horrible to watch, scene and that looming threat is as big a part of this film’s DNA as anything. You can tell it comes from a personal place because the character has more depth and humanity than a one-note drunk, but still fulfills that role. 

The music is outstanding too! Mark Korven’s original score is incredibly intense and does a great job mirroring the external and internal stress of the main characters. I love that it doesn’t overpower the scenes but rather enhances them with guttural energy. Julie Sessing did a wonderful job with the music supervision as well, and again, not overpowering the film but just adding a couple of key tracks to punctuate some of the period elements of the film.

Sometimes the boogeyman is real.

Living up to the hype is never easy and I tend not to have too good of luck with that. However, this was a case where I had fairly high expectations and I still got more out of it than expected. I knew Ethan Hawke would be great and his presence certainly elevated the film as a whole, but the performances across the board benefitted from a well-conceptualized idea with strong fundamental execution.

I watch a lot of horror movies and never really venture into territory where I would say I’m scared. Much of that is just me personally, but The Black Phone kept me anxious for a long time even though I had a pretty solid idea of how things were going to play out, and that speaks volumes.

Recommendation: Everyone has their stylistic preferences for horror films but, if you are a fan of the genre, then you’ve gotta see this one.

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