This is the movie that director Scott Derrickson made after departing Marvel over “creative differences” with the Doctor Strange sequel. After witnessing that disaster of a sequel, there was no question that The Black Phone was the wiser choice for Derrickson.
Based upon Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a return to Derrickson’s horror roots, along with regular screenwriting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, and you can feel the director’s reflexes resetting.
It’s like three movies in one, not all of them needed or entirely coherent. The stuff with Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a kidnapper of children who imprisons them in a locked basement dwelling with a broken black phone attached to the wall, is great, and Hawke is fascinating and unsettling.
Each mask he wears seems to come with a slightly different persona attached, so with each appearance we get another sliver of who this disturbed man may have been. The story of survival is made even more intriguing when our protagonist, young Finney (Mason Thames), learns that the past victims can communicate with him through the mysterious black phone. The scene-to-scene learning and plotting is fun and efficient and requires Finney to be a little bit of a detective, exploring his dank surroundings and the failed escape attempts of the other kids to utilize for his own hopeful plan. The ghost kids also have limited memory of their experiences, which is smart so that he isn’t given a clear advantage without limitations.
The parts that drag are where Finney’s little sister tries to convince the skeptical police officials that her dreams are real and can help find her missing brother. It feels like a Stephen King stereotype leftover that doesn’t amount to much besides padding the running time. It doesn’t even lead to big breakthroughs for Finney to be rescued. As a small-scale creepy contained thriller, The Black Phone is an engaging survival story with a supernatural twist that works as well as it does. It doesn’t have much more depth or meaningful characterization, it’s really just about a kid using the power of neighborhood ghosts to escape a crazy man, and that’s enough.
Letter Grade: B