Fantastic Fest 2021: THE BLACK PHONE is Creepy, Claustrophobic, and Wickedly Cool

This Joe Hill adaptation from the team behind Sinister is a spooky and suspenseful riot

North Denver, 1978. A string of neighborhood teens have gone missing, giving rise to rumors of a devilish child abductor known as The Grabber. To Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), the rumors are just that–tinged with odd whispered details of a black van, black balloons left behind at the scene of the victim’s last known whereabouts, and others…until Finney’s best friend Robin becomes the Grabber’s latest victim. Gwen has strange dreams that seem to point to the Grabber’s identity–but their abusive father (Jeremy Davies) beats such notions out of them, fearful Gwen will end up like their suicidal mother if she pursues her dreams further. Before too long, though, Finney learns the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) is all too real…ending up imprisoned in his concrete basement alone with the detritus of past victims. A disconnected black phone may be Finney’s last hope, as he receives instructions from the ghosts of the Grabber’s victims on how to escape his captor’s clutches.

Based off the 20-page short story by Joe Hill, The Black Phone reunites Sinister’s creative duo Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill for a supernaturally-charged suspense thriller that’s equal parts terrifying and tender, transforming Finney’s abduction into a pulse-pounding coming of age story.

While The Black Phone deliberately keeps its two leads separated for much of the film’s runtime, Derrickson and Cargill structure their film to allow both Thames and McGraw to shine in riveting and suspenseful parallel storylines. While Hill’s original story opens with Finney’s abduction, the film spends quite a bit of time setting up Finney’s family dynamic, as well as the emotional impact these abductions have had on their small circle of friends. It’s clear early on that Finney and Gwen rely on each other to survive even without the threat of a child-killer looming over them. Davies’ father character is a walking time bomb, perpetually drunk after working shifts at the local plant, and barely suppressing his grief over their recently deceased mother.

Finney and Gwen don’t have time for grief. Here, they take on the roles vacated by both parents, cleaning up empty beer bottles amidst afternoon episodes of Davey and Goliath. Thames and McGraw are excellent throughout The Black Phone, creating a lived-in sibling bond that outwits and outlasts any threats both domestic and outside their home. Thames possesses the Spielbergian ingenuity of the best kid leads, determined to figure out any situation arising from conflicts other adults would expect him to be too young to understand, let alone to bravely face on his own. McGraw brought down the house at Fantastic Fest with her earnest, profanity-laden challenges to everyone in authority, from local detectives to Jesus himself. Even when abused by her father, Gwen never lets her rebellious streak be snuffed out. She eventually shouts what her father wants to hear, but her piercing stare reveals she couldn’t give a single damn what he thinks — and they both know it.

When Finney is abducted, Derrickson kinetically cross-cuts between the siblings’ storylines, navigating Finney’s piecemeal unearthing of the basement’s secrets while similar clues burrow their way into Gwen’s dreams. Often, Finney’s visions, relayed to him by dialed-in spirits, will bleed into similar visions experienced by Gwen, keeping the two linked even when the two are physically apart. It’s a wonderful expansion of the short story’s universe, keeping the film moving beyond its confined setting without sacrificing any of the intricately constructed tension and claustrophobia. And because the film rarely leaves the POV of these child actors (aside from two detectives and a brief but hilarious appearance by Sinister actor James Ransone), The Black Phone’s lean focus charges each scene with immediacy, emotional power, and pure terror.

Jesus, is this movie terrifying. Whether it’s the sudden appearance of the Grabber’s past victims, their otherworldly voices filtered by landline static, or how their dialogue will ambiently bounce around disparate theater speakers, Derrickson and Cargill perpetually keep The Black Phone’s audience in a constant state of unease and anxiety. The pair are masters at what’s directly shown versus what’s dreadfully implied — with the ruins of the basement serving as illustrations of past gruesome events while the ghosts narrate their final attempts at escape.

The supreme terror in this film, however, comes from Ethan Hawke’s unbelievably creepy performance. The Grabber is capital-E Evil, with an unrestrained malevolence injected into every cheerfully delivered line. His split mask, a future classic creation by the legendary Tom Savini, allows Hawke to drive his character into further unpredictable territory. The Grabber may make either his eyes or his mouth visible, but never is he fully revealed–keeping him perpetually unknowable and terrifying. Derrickson and Cargill likewise never delve into the backstory of the killer himself. We know only as much as Finney does, leaving much of his motivation to deliciously fester in the imaginations of the audience. While past roles like Tape have seen Hawke turn in understated villainous roles, and even Sinister saw the actor flirt with a hubris-fueled darkness, you’ve never seen Hawke this diabolical.

The killer’s unpredictability is also realized in much of The Black Phone’s impressively creative production design. The film does bring a beautiful amount of period accuracy to a horror film — its opening shot is literally a pop-top can — but what’s truly amazing his how Derrickson, Cargill, and Production Designer Patti Podesta turn every inch of Finney’s basement prison into a minefield of innocuous setups and cheer-inducing payoffs. It’s a great way to visually-realize the film’s journey from Finney’s darkest despair to his life-affirming drive to survive, as Finney digs, tears, buries, and climbs his way out of the jaws of death that have claimed so many before him.

Sinister may have set a terrifyingly high bar at Fantastic Fest 2012, but The Black Phone reunites its creative team for a film that skillfully employs old-school horror and popcorn excitement with sincerity and heart.

The Black Phone had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 25th, 2021. It hits theaters courtesy of Universal Pictures on February 4, 2022.

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