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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'The Black Phone' Review: Horror Thriller Features Ethan Hawke Grabbing Victims

Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw in front of a house
Universal Pictures

What is this about The Black Phone? You might need to escape a child-kidnapping-and-murdering lunatic? As if you needed another reason nowadays to not answer your phone because of your crippling anxiety in high-stakes situations. Thankfully, because it is indeed a film, you can maybe not worry all that much as our main character Finney (Mason Thames) has all that pressure after he also ends up being one of the many victims. The lunatic in question is known as ''The Grabber'' (Ethan Hawke) in these suburbs, locking Finney to a basement where the titular phone is on the wall, letting Finney to communicate with previous victims in order to orchestrate an escape. Meanwhile, his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) finds herself having psychic dreams that she thinks could lead her and authorities to find Finney.

Director-writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill's adaptation of a short story of the same name itself can never quite escape the limitations in terms of the overall story and characterisations but luckily they and rest of the creative team compensate for it elsewhere.

While some of the blocking—like when this ''part-time magician'' actually snatches the kids or when there are kids interacting with each other—can be pretty awkward, it's really never because of the performances. McGraw is the obvious standout in the cast as she has plenty of range that needs to be shown while also dealing with fairly typical material that has her dealing with nightmares and being startled, but Thames also proves to be perfectly capable to lead a movie while acting a lot by himself. Hawke also occasionally shows flashes of true evil despite that he's mostly acting behind masks and there isn't much else to his character other than legends that get shared about him.

What makes the movie work always, though, is its foot-tapping pace as constructed by editor Frédéric Thoraval and Derrickson. Most of it is down to that rhythm but they also flex a little bit by using crossfades, lingering shots featuring effective pans from DoP Brett Jutkiewicz and nice composite shots where other victims are placed in the same room as Finney. It also doesn't hurt that a film based on a short story actually builds up meaningfully to an exhilarating ending sequence where all those pieces come together, whether that's the tear-jerking acting of the kids, cross-cutting between their locations, things established earlier in the script or blood splatter that comes with supernatural horror genre.

Smileys: Madeleine McGraw, editing, ending, pacing

Frowneys: Story

Sometimes you need to hang up for yourself, kid.


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