REVIEW: ‘The Black Phone’ is a frightening delight

Hauntings are fairly common in horror films but “The Black Phone,” thankfully, puts a new twist on the concept.

The movie follows middle school student Finney (Mason Thames), a kid who lives in mid-size Colorado city with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) and father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). The community where Finney resides has been in a state of terror lately as several children have gone missing in recent weeks.

The suspect is only known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke), and eventually, Finney becomes a target. Now kidnapped and locked in a basement, Finney has to try to survive, and ends up getting help from the spirits of the Grabber’s other victims, who speak with the protagonist through a disconnected black phone.

“The Black Phone” has a lot of traditional horror genre elements, such as a killer in a mask, ghosts and even a few jump scares. They’re all fine tuned in this well-made feature, full of suspense.

The movie is exceptionally good at pacing. Slowly but very surely building up the threat level of the Grabber as Finney follows through on more of the advice he receives from the spirits. As a viewer, you know it will all come to a thrilling climax, and one’s anticipation grows with each scene.

The picture is also helped in that it doesn’t take place exclusively within the basement-turned-prison. In the outside world, Gwen is shown to have dreams where she sees visions of where her brother may be, and of the movie’s main antagonist. As a result, she’s hard at work herself trying to find out what happened herself, even if it goes against the wishes of her alcoholic father.

The character development in “The Black Phone” is also quite strong. Finney is thoroughly introduced in the first act and the audience gets a good sense of who he is. He is shown as having it fairly rough life at home and at school, not being able to stand up for himself very well, yet over the course of the movie he finds an inner strength to survive and it’s compelling to see his growth.

The Black Phone
Courtesy Universal Pictures.

Finney’s sister is another good character, actually having some of the best lines of the movie, and her desperation to find her brother is endearing. It’s also noticeable that the sibling bond between the two is really convincing, they appear as a realistic brother and sister on screen together.

The performances of both young performers in the two roles go a long way to making the characters work as well as they do, too. Both have some heavy material to deal with and their performances are a success.

A lesser aspect of the movie was the villain, who leaves a person wanting a bit more. While Ethan Hawke is in fact creepy on screen and the mask he wears makes him a threatening figure, the Grabber is not entirely interesting.

That’s not to say everything about the figure should’ve been explained. There’s of course a scariness in not knowing all of the information with this killer. However, having a few more details about what drove this character to do what he did could have enhanced the experience.

The Grabber is still suitable as an antagonist, though, and the movie as a whole has plenty of chills. There are well placed jump scares, scenes with enough tension to put you on the edge of your seat, and the setting is in the damp, dark basement where the feeling of being trapped works.

“The Black Phone” is an entertaining horror movie with really solid writing. The film captures the 1970s era it takes place in, it has some funny humor in the lighter moments, it keeps up the suspense and properly gives its characters agency.

The film’s third act could have been a little more fleshed out, but overall, this is a strong entry for the genre. 4.25 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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