The Recognition of Evil: Our Review of ‘The Black Phone’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - June 23, 2022
The Recognition of Evil: Our Review of ‘The Black Phone’

It’s the truly unsettling things that hit closer to home then we’d care to admit….

While it doesn’t play into any of the more modern beats of the horror genre that you’d expect from a movie with the Blumhouse logo out in front; The Black Phone is a delicious throwback that blends some real Grindhouse esthetics in with a genuinely psychological piece of terror that doesn’t come at us in a flourish but rather seeps into our pours throughout its run time.

Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer (Ethan Hawke) and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.

The words ‘subtlety’ and ‘horror’ don’t often go side by side; but they do with The Black Phone as the team of writer/director Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke combine to give us a genuine mediation and look at the horror that can exist amongst our neighbours wrapped in a very slick grindhouse and gritty feel.

To start it’s likely that a lot of what’s good about this film comes from the original story by Joe Hill who has a solid reputation for forcing us to think and feel with characters while we’re being terrified.  Derrickson and his co-screenwriter Robert Cargill do a masterful job of getting us invested in the set piece even if it does take a little too long to really get into the meat of it all.  Once you are there though it is an enthralling psychological ride.

Derrickson does an exceptional job of crafting environment, not just in the random dungeon of our bad guy, but in the perils of high school in middle America dealing with parents and family who are emotionally adrift on the brink of the 1980’s still reeling from the realities and the horrors of the Vietnam war that they aren’t all that far removed from.  All this together really is what makes the crux of this story work so well, it’s not about conquering some unseen evil or entity that we don’t understand but rather it’s about understand how monsters can and do exist among us so we can overcome them.

With some not so veiled motifs of child abuse and a lack of open thought to some things we can’t understand, it’s amazing that this film actually uses the unseen powers that can exist around us as a form of good rather then something to be scared of.  That being said, none of this would have worked if not for some pitch perfect performances throughout.

Mason Thames as young Finney Shaw really does great work here as the bullied and abused eldest son in a single parent home, trying to take care of his little sister from the insensitive broad strokes of their father played by Jeremy Davies.

Thames takes us on a journey from victim to hero in an earned and completely believable way that will have audiences cheering by the time we get to the end of the film.  Madeleine McGraw is an absolute lynch pin as Finney’s reluctantly clairvoyant sister Gwen who is desperate to do what she can to find him.

As a film critic I am hard pressed to remember a film that was so well carried by two young actors but they both do an amazing job here, if only because they have an amazing emotional foil to work off of.

Ethan Hawke quite simple tears into the nature of this character as ‘The Grabber’ because he actually allows the character to have layers.   He’s not just a villain per say, rather he’s truly a broken soul who needs to share his pain with the world.  If there’s a word between sympathetic and psychotic, Hawke found it and gave it to us on the screen in all its awkwardly uncomfortable glory.  We don’t want to see what he is…but we can’t look away from him either.

Locked in this dungeon, ‘The Grabber’ is more about inflicting psychological terror at least before he finishes his victims.  It’s not just about killing them; it’s about amplifying the terror in their minds before he does.

That’s what makes the literal device of the ‘Black Phone’ all the more fascinating as the shared experiences of all the victims is the only thing giving Finney a fighting chance against becoming one of them.

There’s a genuinely beautiful sense of subtlety going on in The Black Phone because none of this story is really about solving the crime or understanding the nature of evil.  Rather it’s about giving us the tools to overcome it on those rare instances we come face to face with the true face of genuine evil.  It’s saying some real and earning it’s high spots at the same time which is a rare thing.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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