One of my most anticipated horror films of the year has dialed up an appearance! Blumhouse’s The Black Phone, which first screened at Fantastic Fest 2021, is easily one of the best films of 2022’s Tribeca. This sadistic treat brings new material to the ‘children in peril’ subgenre, and delivers creepy survival horror that lingers long after the credits roll. Ethan Hawke’s performance as “The Grabber” chills the audience to the bone, as his every word is uttered with a tone of singsong childlike glee. Furthermore, the two kids at the center of the action—played by Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw—inject an authenticity and charm to Finney and Gwen, respectively, that immediately invites audience investment in their characters. Speaking to the outsider in us all, The Black Phone ultimately becomes a story of survival, resilience, and friendship.
Set in the North Denver of 1978, The Black Phone instantly establishes atmosphere with ominous credits that showcase lurking cars and missing person signs. Little Finney (Thames) isn’t the most popular kid on the baseball team, nor does he have many friends at school. The few he does have seem to be getting snatched one by one as a mysterious prowler known as “The Grabber” takes the neighborhood by storm. His signature appears to be a pedophile-style black van and a variety of black balloons… At home, an abusive, alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies, Lost, Saving Private Ryan) is constantly tormenting Finney and his sister, Gwen (McGraw) to an almost maddening degree. Gwen’s recurring dreams about The Grabber could prove to be ominous premonitions. Little Gwen is spunky and fiercely loyal—she will do anything to protect her brother.
Eventually, Finney stumbles upon a masked magician offering to show him a magic trick! Finney gets nabbed in a horrifying sequence where he attempts to fight back, only to receive a blast of spray in his mouth. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) initially teases the appearance of The Grabber by fading to black each time someone is about to approach his sinister van. By drawing out his onscreen presence, Derrickson makes The Grabber a horrifying serial killer evocative of real-life ones like John Wayne Gacy. When Finney awakens, The Grabber greets him in a dingy soundproofed basement. Inside the tiny room is only a lonely black phone with the wires cut, a dirty mattress, a toilet without a seat, and a small stack of carpets. The Grabber insists that “nothing bad is going to happen here,” but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this promise is hollow.
Just when Finney needs it the most, he begins receiving strange calls on this black phone, which clearly should not be functioning. On the other line comes the film’s supernatural twist and ultimate hook—the past victims of The Grabber are committed to making sure he does not claim another. Finney must fight for his life using the advice of these unseen (but cinematically shown) dead children and his own spunky problem-solving to outsmart The Grabber at every turn. Gwen’s dreams also become paramount, giving her an almost psychic connection to the victims. With two bumbling detectives on the fringes, Gwen and Finney separately race against the clock to help him flee the clutches of The Grabber.
An epic, pulse-pounding final confrontation feels made expressly with popcorn-throwing audience members in mind. Derrickson never forgets the tension for a second. Shown sparingly, the masks of The Grabber serve to properly unnerve—I was constantly waiting for this character to snap, as his outward appearance of toying with children is an eerie facade. Throwing a vintage filter over the flashbacks and dreams adds an extra layer of genuine love for the time period, buoyed by an excellent soundtrack that includes classics “Fox on the Run” and “Free Ride.” A suspenseful score from Mark Korven (The Lighthouse, The Witch) is the disturbing cherry on top.
Once The Black Phone transforms into a full-on story of survival, it channels Stephen King features It and Stand By Me in that children must work together to overcome impossible scenarios that would be difficult to face even as adults. These are the kinds of stories that when done right, absolutely strike a nerve. As someone who had my own problems with bullying and looking in from the outside during my time at school, I could relate so much with Finney and his struggles. Joe Hill penned the short story the film is based on, and Scott Derrickson co-writes with C. Robert Cargill (Sinister 2) to amp up the small-scale storytelling to dizzying heights. The Grabber is a horrifying icon for the modern genre lover—as depicted by Ethan Hawke; I simply could not get enough. Be sure not to miss this one, as I think its harrowing story of fighting back against those who try to bring one down is one that will speak to hordes of people. Jet-black darkness and chilling atmospheric grime leave one feeling uncomfortable well after the final frame.
The Black Phone screened at 2022’s Tribeca Film Festival. It gives audiences a call when it premieres exclusively in theaters on Friday, June 24th.