Just the other day I was exhausted from non-stop driving, apartment seeking, and family drama that drained me. I was about to drop to the floor. Yet, I decided to go to the movies at the end of the day. The horror in The Black Phone woke me right up. That has to count for something. Director Scott Derrikson has struck gold with this new Joe Hill adaptation that is sure to delight all kinds of horror fans; thanks to some strong direction, performances, and writing.
The first thing that stands out in The Black Phone is the script by Scott Derrikson and C. Robert Cargill. The Black Phone follows teenager Finney after he’s kidnapped. In order to escape he needs his sister, Gwen’s, psychic abilities and the aid of the ghost of his kidnapper’s past victims. What works so well in this story is that we are given very little backstory but there the underlying understanding between characters provides more than enough context. This makes this film feel lively and dynamic. Unlike some other horror movies, the leads are smart and active. The film is also very well-paced. When watching the trailers one might think that the film could have a very repetitive nature. The kid needs to find a way to fight his kidnapper, a ghost gives him a way to fight back, but it doesn’t work, and another ghost comes in to repeat. But every tip that Finney gets does add to the conclusion in a very gratifying way. This is a very strong script.
Scott Derrickson’s direction helps to create a strong tone and some truly terrifying scares. Here he shows a lot of patience and purpose with his scares. The movie holds off on its first jump scare pretty far into the runtime. The movie’s late 1970s setting never feels gimmicky either. A lot of movies that set themselves during a nostalgic time frame typically look at the era with optimism. The Black Phone on the other hand is incredibly bleak, though maybe a little too so at times.
Lastly, the biggest positive is the performance of the leads. Ethan Hawke is haunting as the masked villain and sticks with you long after the credits roll, but it’s actually the child actors that shine the most. Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as the two young siblings shine in this movie. It’s very hard to find young talent, but The Black Phone has struck gold.
There aren’t really any outright glaring issues with The Black Phone, but there are some things to keep in mind.
First, the script should be looked at again. Though I like the lack of backstory, some might find it distracting. There are character dynamics that just exist without any explanation. Bullies that are in the movie just so that there can be bullies. I didn’t really care about this, but I can see this being distracting for some. There are likely more people like me that wish more of the film would be vague. One of the few times that the movie goes into backstory is with Finney’s and Gwen’s parents; which while tragic, comes across as more generic and uninteresting. It does also feel like we see very little of some of the characters, especially the ghosts. Many of them feel like they come and go with very little time to expand upon them. Other characters can feel like they only serve plot point purposes; like cop characters with minimal personality. The minimal approach could be done for the sake of tighter pacing. I prefer this but that might not be true for all.
Lastly, this is a bleak movie with some miserable settings, dark set pieces, and violent moments. It works, but the lack of any small silver lining can make it feel like The Black Phone is trying a little too hard to be edgy. This feels like a movie that a bunch of emo High schoolers would be obsessed over. This approach is easy to accept after watching the movie, but there is still does feel like there’s room for improvement.
The Black Phone is the best horror movie this summer. Its the strong characterization, writing, and direction make for a thrilling ride. Horror fans will be more than happy with The Black Phone and will find it worth revisiting for years to come.