[Fantastic Fest Review] ‘The Black Phone’ Dials Into Terror With Skin-Crawling Villain

For many, director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill’s Sinister ranks high among the scariest modern horror movies. The pair return to horror with an adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story “The Black Phone” from compilation 20th Century Ghost. Derrickson and Cargill revive the same traits and structure of Sinister to transform Hill’s short into a feature-length nightmare full of ghostly kids, violence, and a trio of unforgettable performances.

It’s 1978, and children are going missing in a North Denver neighborhood. Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) already has enough on his plate as it is; he’s bullied in school and at home. Finney and younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) spend their homelife walking on eggshells around their drunk dad (Jeremy Davies), which can prove impossible sometimes. But not long after one of Finney’s only friends goes missing, he crosses paths with the kidnapper (Ethan Hawke). Finney gets trapped in the kidnapper’s near-empty basement, save for a broken black phone, with no way out. With time of the essence as death looms larger, Finney gets help from beyond the grave as the kidnapper’s past victims dial in on the black phone.

The Black Phone’s first act gets the film off to a highly engaging start. The introductions to the sweet but intelligent Finney instantly engender empathy, but it’s his firecracker sister Gwen that threatens to steal the entire film away from him. Whereas Finney is a quiet presence, Gwen fears nothing save for her father. She mouths off to adults and Jesus alike- yes, Jesus. Gwen also has a unique gift that will help propel the mystery behind the missing kids.

(from left) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

At the opposite spectrum of the kids is Hawke’s kidnapper. Hawke’s face is almost completely obscured the entire film behind a Tom Savini-designed mask, and it adds to Hawke’s utterly skin-crawling performance. The actor exudes a perverse, murderous creepiness that makes his constant threat of danger palpable. His portrayal goes far to convey the abject menace long before we see the aftermath of his depraved work. There are shocking bursts of violence and scares, but none of that holds a candle to Hawke’s decisive turn.

True to form, Derrickson injects effective scares, but they’re a bit too scarce here. Once Finney starts conversing with ghost kids, The Black Phone settles into a pattern that slows the pacing. One that more scares could’ve alleviated. As each child brings a new layer to the killer’s modus operandi, it’s reminiscent of Sinister’s similar plot unraveling through Super 8 tapes. Derrickson didn’t forget that either- that grainy home video aesthetic gets woven into Gwen’s dreams. The director also brings James Ransone in for some comedic relief to break up the harrowing child-in-peril tale.

Overlap aside- this really could exist in Sinister’s universe- The Black Phone marks another solid effort by the writer and director. The scares work, and so does the tension. The small neighborhood town feels lived in; we care about everyone long before the kidnapper rolls up with his black van. Its biggest strength lies with its lead performances. Thames brings the heart, but McGraw is a rare exceptional talent. But Hawke is in a league of his own, playing against type in a remarkable and remarkably unsettling way. It won’t rank as high on the scare meter as Derrickson and Cargill’s previous horror film, but it is more relatable and heartfelt. You’ll want to answer the call for The Black Phone.

The Black Phone releases in theaters on January 28, 2022.