Horror films are known to scare off moviegoers rather than collect them. I know horror films have their fans but being in a movie theater with non-horror fans watching a horror movie can create some experiences too annoying to want to re-experience. People yell, blame characters for doing stupid things and make groans at how cliché and predictable they can be. Horror movies are like the dirty laundry of cinema; no one wants to talk about them, but we all have to admit they exist and have to deal with that reality. One reality I almost couldn’t deal with was seeing a literal standing ovation at the end credits of a screening of “The Black Phone.” I have never seen anyone applaud a horror movie, but after seeing the film, I totally can see why.
Set in the 1970s, Finney (Mason Thames) is a shy 13-year-old boy with few friends and a kid sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who happens to have dreams that turn out to be psychic visions. One day, Finney is abducted by a sadistic masked killer known as ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke), who locks him in his soundproof basement and begins playing sick games with the frightened child. When a disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, Finney learns the callers are the voices of the Grabber’s previous dead victims. Using the voice’s unique guidance, Finney plans to outsmart the Grabber and escape back to his home alive before it’s too late.
Despite the horrendously grim nature of the story about a masked child killer, “The Black Phone” is miraculously one of the most inspirational and hope-filled horror films I have ever seen. This is more about a potential victim rising up and using his wits and his strength to survive a serial killer. Granted, yes, it’s still a horror movie; the Grabber is incredibly eerie and disturbing to watch; thanks to Hawke’s brilliantly irredeemable performance and what he is doing in unforgivably evil. However, “Black Phone” does not show us an epic body count slasher flick, but instead, a courage-building journey about a victim fighting against his fate and relying on the souls of those he had slain to help make sure no one ever becomes a victim again. It’s an empowering tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat, eagerly anticipating a hopeful outcome in a dark, dreary setting.
One of the most interesting things about Finney’s phone tag friends is the unique way they are presented. They speak as disembodied voices, confused about where they are, what happened and how this is even possible. It allows us to learn about each victim without becoming too muddled with too many characters while at the same time digging deeper into their horrific fate and providing unique ways for Finney to learn and fight for himself against the Grabber. There are many surprises throughout the story as well. Just when you think you got it all figured out, another curve ball is thrown that changes the dynamic, and then another and another. You’re always kept on your toes and kept guessing the true nature of the series of events. Hawke’s disturbing character continues to be unpredictable, and his unique use of multiple masks gives a sort of fractured insight into his personality that would normally be ignored or overlooked.
One of the best aspects, though, is easily the child actors. Finney and his sister have a wonderful and natural relationship. McGraw and Thames feel like a real-life brother and sister with their banter, chemistry, and support of one another. McGraw, in particular, delivers all the comedy in spades. Her obscenity-loaded deliveries just come out of nowhere, and they hit a comedic home run out of the park every time. The film always reminds you there is more to come and gives you hope that things might change. There is no permanent sense of doom and gloom eclipsing all the joy; this film allows you to hope, laugh, and feel triumph rather than dread 24/7, and that is very hard for any horror movie that isn’t B-grade or a comedic spoof to accomplish.
Overall, if there is any complaint I have, it would be not seeing enough of the Grabber, and that is more for my own personal interest rather than an actual story flaw. “The Black Phone” is a thrilling, intense burst of courage and excitement that keeps you invested and enthralled from the start. The actors are stellar in every performance, delivery, and interaction and play well off each other. All elements of mystery, thriller, horror, and empowering blend together near perfectly and generate a compelling mixture that feels fresh as well as frightening. “The Black Phone” was well deserving of its standing ovation at my local showing, and it’s also well deserving of your time, money, and appreciation. Give this one a buy!
I give “The Black Phone” 3 ½ stars out of 4 stars.