Is The Black Phone the scariest horror film of the year?

The Black Phone - Courtesy Tribeca
The Black Phone - Courtesy Tribeca /

Director Scott Derrickson’s highly anticipated new film The Black Phone opened in theaters on June 24 to the tune of $23 million during its premier weekend in the US and Canada. As a huge fan of horror, and of writer Joe Hill (whose short story the film is based on), I have been looking forward to this film for months. So, did it live up to my expectations?

I had high hopes, because I really liked Derrickson’s 2012 super-dark Sinister a lot. It was terrifying, even for someone like me, who has watched horror films for most of my life. I am not an easy one to scare, but Sinister gave me the full-on willies.

The villain of The Black Phone is known as “The Grabber”, a creep who regularly kidnaps boys who are never seen again. The Grabber wears a terrifying mask, which is heavily featured on the film’s poster, as well as in the trailers. The mask is an interesting design; it seems to consist of at least four pieces, an upper half, and several lower halves that are sometimes switched out to portray a blank space, a smile or an angry frown. The horror nerd in me was pleased to learn in the closing credits that horror icon Tom Savini created that mask.

Actor Ethan Hawke portrays The Grabber, and it’s a compliment when I say he does an exceedingly creepy job playing a man who is seriously unhinged. You never know what to expect from him, because one minute he is bringing his latest victim a bottled Sprite and scrambled eggs while talking in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, and the next, he is throwing a full-on temper tantrum and calling the poor kid a naughty boy in a harsh, guttural voice.

The Black Phone
Black Phone. Courtesy Tribeca /

The Black Phone is set in the 70s, and as a child of that era myself, I can tell you that it perfectly captures the look and feel of the time. It was also a time period when many child abductions and murders happened, so there’s that. Despite this fact, parents and teachers didn’t pay a lot of attention to kids, so  a rough, violent (and uninterrupted) schoolyard fight also feels authentic.

It’s in this era that Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) are being raised by their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies). I use the term “raised” loosely, since the two kids regularly talk about looking after Dad, who is mostly semi-conscious in the evenings.

Finney and Gwen are very close, though they are opposites where personalities are concerned: Finney is rather meek and mild, and gets bullied fairly regularly, and Gwen is feisty, with a sailor’s mouth and a hot temper when provoked. She also has another unique trait, in that she appears to have the gift of premonition through her dreams.

Her Dad doesn’t consider it a gift, though, because it seems the kids’ mother also had dreams, and he believes they drove her to suicide. While we can sympathize with his feelings, it’s still difficult to watch the scene that takes place after the cops talk to Gwen at school, after being told details about The Grabber’s crimes that she has received in her dreams.

Her father’s response is to spank her severely with a belt, and McGraw’s and Thames’s acting in this scene is raw and painful to watch. Finney wants to help, but must instead stand and observe silently, knowing anything he does will only make things worse. Afterwards, he and his sister sit side by side, leaning on one another, with no words necessary. It’s a powerful moment, and really drives home how close these two are.

When Finney himself is the next victim of The Grabber, he wakes up to find himself in a stark basement, furnished only with a mattress, a disconnected black telephone on the wall, and a bathroom. All too soon, he meets his kidnapper face-to-face, and is told that the phone doesn’t work, even though The Grabber admits it does sometimes ring…but no one is on the other end.

When the phone rings, Finney answers, only to hear the voice of a boy on the line – a boy who was one of The Grabber’s first victims, and wants to help Finney escape. One by one, other victims call with tips and tricks to help, and eventually these faceless voices become boys that Finney actually knew.

Meanwhile, his desperate sister is praying to Jesus to help her find her brother by giving her dreams that will include answers. It’s slow going, though, and Gwen knows time is running out for Finney.

The Black Phone
The Black Phone – Courtesy Universal Pictures /

Most reviewers have waxed poetic about the acting performances of the two young stars, and I am no exception. While Ethan Hawke is really strong in the role of The Grabber, viewers really have to be pulled into the story by Finney and Gwen, and Thames and McGraw are more than up to the task. I was 100% invested in their story and survival, and I loved those two kids. Their performances felt completely authentic.

Finney is a character you really root for and sympathize with, and Gwen is chock full of determination. She made me laugh a few times too, despite the heartbreak she was able to invoke. At one point, frustrated with the lack of clear answers in her dreams, she opens up one of her conversations with Jesus by saying, “What the f***??” I just loved her character, and would shell out more hard-earned money to see her further adventures in the future.

Here’s a little The Black Phone trivia for you: Madeline McGraw’s younger sister Violet (Doctor Sleep, Black Widow) played young Nell in the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House.

The Black Phone was intense, thrilling, frightening and definitely made me jump a few times, so yes, it did live up to my expectations, exceeded them even. In my book, it’s the best wide-release horror film of the year, and I don’t know if it can be beat in the remaining 6 months of 2022.

If you are a horror fan who has been hesitant about returning to the cinema for the past two years, this film is worth it.

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