The Stew Review: The Black Phone delivers a taut supernatural thriller

Published: Jun. 29, 2022 at 11:01 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 29, 2022 at 4:12 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - The Black Phone is like ordering a bacon cheeseburger that you thought might have some special sauce on it but doesn’t.

What you ate is really pretty good! All the ingredients are balanced well. The burger is grilled the way you like it. The bacon could probably have been cooked just a little better but it’s fine. It’s a tasty burger. You’re happy you ordered it. Everyone who went to the burger joint with you really seemed to love it too! But it needs a little something extra under the bun.

I’m not really a horror guy. It’s just never been my favorite genre and I really only get something out of certain segments of the genre. I feel like this should be made known simply for the sake of context, both for people who are big horror fans, as well as those who share my lack of exuberance for the genre. It just so happens, though, that The Black Phone is precisely the kind of horror movie that I gravitate toward: A clever concept wrapped around a plot and scenarios that are moody and more psychologically or supernaturally focused than something grisly and visceral.

We follow Finney (Mason Thames), a floundering 13-year-old boy who seems terminally incapable of standing up for himself, to the point where even his kid sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is more successful at fending off his bullies. Life is hard enough for most teens, but it’s especially difficult in this small Colorado suburb that’s struggling to deal with a rash of disappearances, all boys around Finney’s age. Gossip among the kids is that an abductor nicknamed The Grabber is responsible, but even the police are thus far stumped as to who or what is responsible for these disappearances. However, Finney soon finds out The Grabber isn’t just some school yard urban legend when he’s abducted and trapped inside a soundproofed basement containing little more than a mattress and a disconnected black rotary telephone.

Just what does The Grabber want from him? It’s unclear. But the only way Finney stands a chance of surviving is with the help of the mysterious voices that speak to him over the phone.

What ensues is a delightful exercise in ratcheted tension, measured progression and fostering a perpetual sense that anything could happen next. Director Scott Derrickson does a remarkable job of keeping things lively and engaging despite nearly half the movie taking place inside a bleak, concrete basement with his lead character talking to disembodied voices. He wisely knows how to best split the time between Finney and Gwen (who keeps having dreams related to the abductions), never letting us spend too much time sequestered in the basement. And while jump scares often feel lazy, Derrickson deploys a hat trick of them here that manage to at least feel superbly placed as a release valve for a scene and not just a cheap bit of punctuation.

Thames isn’t quite up to the task of shouldering the weight such a demanding scenario brings, but for a young actor he does well enough given the constraints. Though thankfully he has a superbly creepy antagonist to interact with in The Grabber, played to off-kilter perfection by Ethan Hawke. Hawke is one of my favorite working actors and it’s always a delight seeing superb actors play against type. Hawke’s face is hidden behind a segmented mask (one that should rightly become iconic in its own right) but he uses that obfuscation to fuel the unease with his measured voice and eerily calm demeanor.

Special praise must also be given to McGraw who turns Gwen into a little firecracker of a character, garnering some of the best laughs in the movie as well as providing a big part of its emotional backbone in some ways.

The true backbone of the film, though, is found in its script, penned by Derrickson and his longtime collaborator, C. Robert Cargill, based on a short story by none other than Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill. It moves with clockwork precision, never wasting a scene. Every moment that matters is set up for a satisfactory payoff that often garnered literal cheers from the audience. Gasps. Yelps. Applause. This delivers everything you’d want in an audience reaction from this sort of movie.

What makes the quality of the script so frustrating, though, is that it ends up highlighting how a very good movie could have been great. Because for as satisfying as The Black Phone is, it’s still lacking that extra punch from that special sauce, something to give it extra texture or depth of flavor. Everything that makes this movie satisfying is entirely on the surface. That makes it an easy watch, but it leaves you hungry for something a little bit more substantial later. This isn’t to say that Cargill or Derrickson are incapable of saying something through the movie, but it does feel like there wasn’t much of an attempt at doing so. The Black Phone feels like it’s lacking some larger subtext or even a deeper emotional payoff that simply never surfaces or arrives, respectively.

That said, the movie never feels like a too-slight experience despite this and is almost certainly one I look forward to revisiting, something I rarely do with horror films.

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