Monday, July 4, 2022

The Black Phone: Movie Review

Scary, engaging, tense and heartwarming.
Denver, 1978. Boys are playing baseball, girls are cheering them on. Finney (Mason Thames) is pitching but gives up a game-winning home run, opposing player Bruce gives him some encouraging words. Bruce is riding his bike home, then black balloons float up above the hydro lines. We know what’s happened because the set-up for The Black Phone is so efficient, so crisp and clear. The Grabber has kidnapped Bruce, a kind-hearted boy.   2021

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Screenplay by: C. Robert Cargill
Based on the short story by Joe Hill

Starring: Mason Thames, Ethan Hawke

There’s a serial kidnapper on the loose, and other than seeing flyers for the missing boys, the kids are acting exactly like normal kids. There’s going to be a fight at school so Finney and sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are eager to get there. A bully has picked a fight and this time the other boy wants to fight back. The other boy is Robin (Miguel Cazaraz Mora), a very strong and tough kid who takes it upon himself to stand up to bullies and fight back on behalf of the boys who’re unable to stand up for themselves.

Finney is one of those boys who’s bullied at school, and other than Robin his only friend is his sister Gwen. And then they both come home to be beat up by their father an abusive alcoholic. This is one of those movies that can tell us so much with so little. We know a lot about Finney, his relationship with Gwen, and what’s happened to their mother with just a few short scenes, and yes that past is important. It builds up to the horror aspect so nicely because the drama feels real. The drama is so integral to the story that it doesn’t feel extemporaneous like many horror films do. These relationships are important, significant, and authentic.

And then we get to the horror aspect. And again so efficient, crisp and clear. Finney is alone in an unfinished, dungy and grimy basement with nothing but an old dirty mattress and a disconnected black phone on the wall. All basic plot descriptions will tell you that Finney receives calls from the eternal beyond. The audience knows these jump scares are coming and yet they are still scary. That’s impressive filmmaking.

This is a scary, engaging, funny, heart-warming and tense movie. The relationships the boys form with one another is tender and yet realistic (realistic with the caveat that it involves supernatural elements). Ethan Hawke as the grabber is one of those quietly menacing movie villains – he can sit there with just a mask on and do nothing and say nothing and the audience is still terrified of him. Finney trying to figure out ways to escape is really engaging and emotionally powerful. And then we come to Finney and his relationship with Gwen – a truly heartwarming sibling relationship. They can say so much to each other without saying a word because they both know what the other is going through. I absolutely loved that it focused on Finney and the other boys and Gwen and the other kids. This isn’t about what makes the Grabber tick or why he does what he does, or how he picks the victims – his victims were picked-on kids, and bullies, and boys who were none of the above. It’s a movie about savouring life and doing everything you can to make it out alive.

The Black Phone is a simple story but with really effective storytelling. It built up some great relationships to help get the audience through a tense and horrifying tale.