The Black Phone, by Cameron J. Czaja

When God closes a door, he opens a window. That was the case for director Scott Derrickson, who is someone I mentioned in previous reviews. For those who are unaware, he is the director of Sinister (2012), which is one of my favorite horror films of all time. He also did Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016), a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film that has grown on me year after year since its release. Derrickson was set to direct the Doctor Strange sequel, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, but creative differences between him and Marvel Studios unfortunately led to Derrickson stepping down from the director’s chair, though he’s still a producer for the project. After that door closed, he then had the opportunity to make his next project that he’s been wanting to do with his writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, for quite some time, which is The Black Phone.

While The Black Phone was something I was looking forward to for quite some time given the director’s resume of films I’ve seen and enjoyed, this flew under the radar for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve barely seen a trailer and/or viewed little advertising for it during previews in theaters. In hindsight, I’m actually glad I haven’t consumed many of the previews because I feel like most trailers or advertisements give away too much information, and I wanted to go in blind as can be, metaphorically speaking. Was this as scary and/or as great as Sinister? As usual, let’s find out.

 Set in 1978, The Black Phone follows Finney (Mason Thames), a middle schooler who lives in Denver, Colorado, with his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and his dad, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), who is abusive, alcoholic, and a widower. With the exception of his current parental situation, Finney is a pretty normal kid. He’s a pitcher for his local baseball team, is interested in science, and gets along with others, except those who occasionally bully him. One day while walking home from school, Finney stumbles upon a stranger (Ethan Hawke) handling groceries, which he “accidently” drops in front of Finney. When Finney tries to help him pick them up, this stranger picks up Finney by force, macing the boy and putting him in his van. Moments later, Finney wakes up in a basement where the stranger (now known as “The Grabber”) is holding him hostage and telling him that the basement is soundproof. The only thing unusual the Finney sees in the basement is a black phone attached to the wall that’s disconnected. What’s even more unusual is that it starts to ring, which spooks Finney, however he still answers it even though no one is on the other line. When it rings a second time, he answers it again, though this time someone speaks to him. At first Finney couldn’t tell who it is, but as soon as he speaks more to the mysterious individual, he begins to learn that it is someone he knew before his kidnaping. Throughout the film, Finney keeps getting calls from the black phone and each one is a victim that the Grabber abducted and placed in the same basement. From there, Finney uses the information given from previous victims to try to escape. At same time, his sister also tries to help him as she experiences visions in her dreams that foretell the future. 

Even though I’ve only seen a handful of horror films this year so far, I can confidently say that The Black Phone is hands down the best one that I’ve watched out of all of them. Not only that, but I think that this is one of my favorite films to come out of 2022. Hyperbolic you might ask? Allow me to elaborate. 

What makes The Black Phone a really interesting film for me is the filmmaking itself, how they handle the supernatural compared to the real-world threats, and how God has an important role in the film, though I’ll get more into that later.

For a film set in in the 1970s, not only did The Black Phone have the look of the 1970s, but it also felt like made in that era. The way certain scenes are filmed gives the impression that it is an authentic 1970s movie. There are even moments in the film that are captured in a Super 8 format, which is the same technique that the director used in portions of Sinister. That particular element what is a nice surprise because not only did it feel like a time capsule of a movie, but it added an extra layer of tension to the more thrilling parts of the film, which is where the supernatural part comes in.

Normally whenever I am watching a film involving the supernatural, such as ghosts, it’s usually shown through an antagonistic perspective. However, seeing them in The Black Phone helping our young protagonist through his dire situation is a nice change of pace compared to how ghosts our generally presented. Then again, I think what helped is Ethan Hawke’s portrayal as the Grabber. With an unknown personality and having his face covered with a mask throughout the film, his presence scared me more than any paranormal entity that is present. I think this is mainly because he is a stranger who could physically harm Finney in unknown ways, which as a kid sounds terrifying. When a character can be more frightening than something that is perceived as scary such as ghost, then it goes to show that you’ve done a really good job.

Earlier, when describing the plot of The Black Phone, I mentioned I mentioned the sister having psychic powers. Believe or not, this is one of my favorite elements of the film. Why, you might ask? Well, unlike most films that have psychics in them where they have their powers just because, the girl believes that she got them from God and perceives it like it’s a gift that she must use save your brother. Her “powers” are very subtle, though. They only work when she’s dreaming and she perceives these dreams as visions of the future hence why she’s psychic. She even has some religious relics that she keeps in her doll house, and always has them with her when she prays to God for a vision so she could help her brother. There’s even a moment when she has doubt due to lack of visions during a certain point of film. However, soon after that she gets a major clue in her dreams, which ends with her saying “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry” to God, which made me crack up. While Gwen calling out to God is extremely subtle, it’s something I definitely enjoyed, and I hope future horror films when having the element of God take note of how well it’s presented here.

Will The Black Phone be the best horror film of 2022? The jury is still out on that on account of I’m writing this review mid-July and we still have six more months to go. That said, it is an intense thriller that exceeded my expectations. From the tension filled scenes revolving our protagonist, to the elements involving the supernatural and how God plays a major role supporting her brother, it’s a film where it may not have been as scary compared to Sinister, but unlike that film this one has a much happier ending. If I had any complaints, it did feel a bit long during certain scenes, even though the running time is less than two hours and I wished we knew a little bit more about the Grabber. You do not need a whole lot, but just enough just so he could’ve been scarier. Aside from that, I’m looking forward to watching this again with less tension, and I hope it’s something I can recognize as one of the great films of 2022.

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