Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: ‘The Black Phone’ is a chilling breath of fresh air for mainstream horror

Mason Thames stars in "The Black Phone," which was released June 24, 2022.
Mason Thames stars in "The Black Phone," which was released June 24, 2022.

The latest Blumhouse Productions horror film to hit theaters is “The Black Phone,” directed by Scott Derrickson. It stars Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw and is set in 1978.

Blumhouse has been going through a bit of a rut lately, with their last two wide theatrical releases  — “Halloween: Kills” and “Firestarter” — being critically panned and not all that successful financially. Because of this, I was wary going into “The Black Phone.” On paper, it seemed like just another forgettable horror film with an intriguing premise that would ultimately disappoint in its execution. 

However, Scott Derrickson ensured that this would not be the case. “The Black Phone” is simple in its premise, but Derrickson’s direction elevates the combination of supernatural real-world horror so that it finds its way under your skin. 

The film follows a young boy named Finney who is kidnapped by “The Grabber.” The spirits of the Grabber’s previous victims, all kids from the same town, help Finney by communicating with him through the old black phone on the basement wall where he’s being kept. Finney’s sister Gwen also tries to help Finney by using her premonitory dreams to locate him and the rest of the Grabber’s victims.

Overall, the film has an unexpected creative edge that pushes it past the idea of being a throw-away summer horror film. The dream sequences are grainy and disorienting, the performances enhance the realism of the story and the score is menacing and combines classic horror music tropes with sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

It’s impossible to talk about the achievements of this film without calling out Hawke’s terrifying performance as The Grabber. Hawke completely transforms into this sadistic killer. His vocal inflection and physical mannerisms are mesmerizing in a way that makes you hold your breath when he’s on-screen. Even though he’s wearing a fantastically designed mask most of the time, all of the true horror comes from the way he sells this chilling performance. It’s because of this that I wish we saw more of the character; his presence is limited but the effect is major. 

But, the film would be nothing without the two performances from Thames and McGraw. These two young actors are able to hold their own against the film’s more seasoned adult cast. Thames’s scenes alongside Hawke are particularly engaging, as both play their parts with immense dedication and a deep understanding of their characters. McGraw is a surprising standout as she brings an unexpected layer of humor to the film without weakening its dark tone. 

Unfortunately, the film still relies on generic horror tropes to garner fear in the audience. Derrickson pulls off some interesting creative choices to make the supernatural phone calls more visceral, but the inclusion of uninspired jump scares tampers the overall effectiveness. 

Despite this, the film’s visual storytelling and atmosphere building cement “The Black Phone” as one of Blumhouse’s best horror films as of late. The character-driven story thrives due to the performances and effective writing, making us root for Finney from the very first scene.

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