If The Black Phone comes off like it is an off-brand Stephen King story, it is because it sort of is. The Black Phone is an adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill; the pen name of Joseph Hillström King, the son of Stephen King. The boy inherited a lot of his father’s style and it comes through in Scott Derrickson’s direction.
It is a story set in Denver, Colorado, in the late 70s, during the height of the serial killer scare. This was during the “Summer of Sam” when David Berkowitz took orders from his dog to kill people and Ted Bundy was getting caught a third time. This was the time of people appearing on milk cartons and missing posters around suburbs.
The Black Phone is a layered story of survival with complex characters, and surreal visions and has a creative supernatural twist. What can viewers expect from Scott Derrickson who has an admittedly spotty track record when it comes to horror? Is this on the same level as The Exorcism of Emily Rose? Or is it a turd like Sinister? Find out in The Black Phone review!
The Black Phone (2022)
Production Blumhouse Productions, Crooked Highway
Publisher: Universal Pictures
Director: Scott Derrickson
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Finney and his sister, Gwen live with their depressed and alcoholic father. Their mother had died and while she was alive she was prone to visions and it was a gift that has seemingly been passed to Gwen. In his bleak and self-destructive drunken stupor, their father has violent bouts where he beats his daughter.
The theme of abuse is concurrent throughout the entire film. Finney himself endures his abuse while being bullied at school on top of his turbulent home life. As if this isn’t enough, he finds himself the latest victim of the local child killer, “The Grabber”.
The Grabber is an enigmatic kidnapper who has a penchant for magician-style theatrics. He drives around in a creepy black van and wears an uncanny devil mask with an unsettling grin that can be swapped out with other expressions.
The way the film is shot and edited makes The Grabber’s mask feel less like a mask and more like a bizarre face that somehow always has the appropriate expression for the scene. It also makes him seem supernatural in how he is able to either predict which words he will need or how gifted he is at the sleight of hand.
Compounded with Ethan Hawk’s diabolical and chilling performance, the character comes alive and commands every scene he is in. There is very little information about his character explained- only inferred. There are enough clues to suggest what is beneath the surface, but it is up to the viewer to interpret his character.
When Finney finds himself caught in The Grabber’s sick game, the movie goes into overdrive. Finney only has a disgusting mattress and an apparent nonworking black telephone. Except the phone does work… maybe. It is a hotline to the other side and the spirits of the boys The Grabber has killed speak through it.
The lost souls of the boys become fleshed-out posthumous characters in their own right. Each one becomes a guiding light for Finney’s growth as they nudge him in the right direction based on how they died. The ghosts help him stay one step ahead of The Grabber and impart some insight into his method.
While Finney is dealing with The Grabber’s Buffalo Bill-like shenanigans, Gwen’s visions are hitting her hard like Danny Torrance during his stay at The Overlook. The thing is her shining is abstract and only gives her parts of the future; she is seemingly able to communicate with the dead too.
If you can accept this premise, then The Black Phone unfolds as a very grounded supernatural thriller with some exciting sequences and terrifying scenes. The rising tension borders on being almost unwatchable from the edge-of-your-seat suspense.
The Black Phone is more than just thrills, it has a strong emotional core. Finney and Gwen’s relationship with their father is complex and even though he is shown to be a tremendously violent abuser, it is because he is broken from the loss of his wife and having to raise two kids.
The climax has clever callbacks that are very much like something Stephen King would have come up with. There are some shocking twists and violent surprises that make The Black Phone stand out from other horror movies. Characters show ingenuity ahead of the audience and it never feels forced.
The Black Phone is an appropriately dreary and dead-looking movie. The atmosphere feels like a heavy gloom that sticks to the characters’ skin and everyone looks dirty and haggard. Every exterior looks cloudy and there is never a shot of the sun. Compounded with the late 70s feel, The Black Phone is a deliberately ugly-looking movie.
The Black Phone is one of the better low-budget horror movies made in a while. It is a modest production that isn’t too showy and leans on the actors’ performances and the directors’ style. It doesn’t rely on cheap scares or out-of-place CGI effects for spectacle; only heart and horror.
The Black Phone was reviewed via Amazon Prime streaming services. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. The Black Phone is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.