Hanging on the Telephone

Ethan Hawke is awesomely creepy in the somewhat predictable ‘The Black Phone’

The Black Phone has a dynamite pedigree as genre pictures go. Director Scott Derrickson previously teamed with writer C. Robert Cargill on Doctor Strange; the pair also worked with heel-turning star Ethan Hawke on the well-regarded Sinister (2012). The Black Phone is adapted from a short story by Joe Hill, who made a point of making a name for himself in the horror world before revealing he’s the son of the one and only Stephen King. And even before the real terror starts, the film layers on the tension: populated with abusive parents and neighborhood bullies who literally go for blood, The Black Phone feels like it inhabits a place where truly terrifying things could happen.

THE BLACK PHONE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: C. Robert Cargill, Joe hill
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeline McGraw, James Ransome
Running time: 102 mins

It’s the 1970s, when children were largely free-range, easy prey for stranger dangers like The Grabber (Hawke), who’s kidnapped a string of kids off the streets of his Denver neighborhood. His latest target, Finney (assured newcomer Mason Thames), has plenty of reasons to write himself off as another statistic; The Grabber’s previous victims were local toughs who all stood to put up much more of a fight than poor bullied Finney. But then the disconnected phone next to Finney’s soiled mattress starts to ring, and that’s when things start to get weird for Finney and The Grabber.

It feels like damning with faint praise to say that The Black Phone turns out to be only exactly what it aspires to be: a pretty good horror feature, with a few jump scares and some fine child actors who do an admirable job carrying most of an entire movie. What keeps the film in pretty good territory is Hawke’s performance as The Grabber, who manages to be about the creepiest abductor since The Silence Of The Lambs. The Grabber uses a mercurial mood, a well-soundproofed basement and some legitimately disturbing masks to amuse himself and toy with his victims; whenever Hawke’s on screen, even in a full mask, you can feel the pressure building up.

Throw in some comic relief from Finney’s foul-mouthed sister (Madeleine McGraw) and a wannabe detective (James Ransone), a subplot involving psychic shenanigans, and you’ve got a movie – but that’s about it. The Black Phone always makes sense but rushes a little too tidily toward its inevitable confrontation, and the initial foreboding tone doesn’t entirely pay off. And horror is a genre where more than any other you can witness something new; the latter half of the film, no matter how finely done, feels quaintly old-fashioned. It’s a pretty good movie, but one way or another it’s one you’ve seen before, making The Black Phone something of a tough call.

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Ryan Kallberg

Ryan Kallberg is a writer based in southern California. His work has appeared in The Onion, The A.V. Club and on E! Online. His checkered resumé includes stints as a professional poker player, reality television producer, and sandwich assembler.

One thought on “Hanging on the Telephone

  • June 25, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    Gotta love a good “Blondie” headline. Though I recently discovered that the song was originally by the short-lived power-pop trio, The Nerves.


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