‘The Black Phone’ Film Review: Stephen King–Flavored Retro Horror Delivers Solid Chills

Scott Derrickson’s adaptation of a Joe Hill story leaves a lot on the table, character-wise, but it’s an effectively nostalgic scary tale

The Black Phone Ethan Hawke Scott Derrickson
"The Black Phone" (Credit: Universal)

This review of “The Black Phone” was first published June 19, 2022, after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The creepiest (and best) moments in the kiddie-kidnap horror pic “The Black Phone” take full advantage of the movie’s basic setup: a suburban teen gets abducted and then struggles to escape his captor’s sound-proof basement.

That scenario, co-adapted from a Joe Hill (“NOS4A2”) short story by director Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange”) and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, folds neatly into the mini-trend of quasi-nostalgic horror-adventures that both “Stranger Things” and the 2017 “It” adaptation brought back into vogue.

Derrickson and Cargill successfully tailor their focused and mostly compelling narrative to a Steven Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment–esque bit of Stephen King–sploitation. (King, as it happens, is author Hill’s dad.) There’s nothing in “The Black Phone” that you can’t also get in more inventive recent King adaptations (like “Doctor Sleep”) or King-like homages.

But Derrickson and Cargil’s first post-MCU movie still mostly thrills, thanks partly to its strong ensemble cast and some uniform below-the-line excellence from the teams behind production designer Patti Podesta (“American Gods”) and sound designer D. Chris Smith (“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”).

Set in 1978 around a Colorado suburb, “The Black Phone” mostly concerns wallflower every-kid Finney (Mason Thames) and the Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a serial child-napper and killer who lures children off the street with a van full of black balloons. Some of the more intriguing parts of Finney’s story also involve Finney’s little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw, “Outcast”), who tries to help the local police to find Finney using clues from her foreboding dreams, which all concern the Grabber and Finney.

Finney and Gwen’s close bond adds some symbolic weight to the Grabber’s actions, since Finney and Gwen’s sleazebag father (Jeremy Davies) likes to beat both his kids. But Derrickson and Cargill’s script doesn’t really develop or stray far enough away from Finney’s story to make his relationship with Gwen mean much beyond some heavy implications and canned aw-shucks moments of sibling camaraderie. That’s especially unfortunate given the promise of early scenes that foreground, but don’t really engage with, the psychological impact of the abuse inflicted by Davies’ pathetic single dad (mostly verbal, but some corporal punishment involving a belt).

There’s some stomach-churning tension in an early exchange between Gwen and her dad when, after he catches her awake past her bedtime, Gwen’s dad growls that he knows what she’s been up to but then earnestly wishes her a good night. That moment’s even more remarkable because Davies, acting for two from off-camera, does more to sell the emotional complexity of this scene than either McGraw or Derrickson. In training so much of Hill’s narrative on Finney, Derrickson and Cargill ignore a lot of potential for developing their movie’s dark premise.

McGraw delivers a decent performance, but Gwen never seems to have the rich inner life or fears that her brother does, not even when she has an involved and viscerally upsetting dream sequence involving the Grabber, presented in jittery jump cuts and shot on 8mm film by cinematographer Bret Jutkiewicz (“Scream” 2022). These scenes are suggestive, but lack resonance beyond the superficial appeal of their faded, retro vibe.

Still, scenes where Finney tries to bust out of the Grabber’s basement give the movie’s story a welcome prison break–style hook. Thames and Hawke also do a great job of establishing the uneasy captor/captive connection between the Grabber and Finney. And they go about as far as they can with the movie’s goofy high-concept conceit: Finney can communicate with the spirits of the Grabber’s now-dead victims using a disconnected land-line telephone.

But even Finney’s conversations with dead classmates, like empathetic buddy Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) and admiring little league rival Bruce (Tristan Pravong), promise much more than Finney’s cryptic and spooky-sounding conversations with the dead ultimately deliver. Robin and Bruce’s posthumous presence in Finney’s story hints at the existence of a supernaturally connected network of abused children, but these supporting characters mainly exist in “The Black Phone” to panic Finney and hasten his next escape attempt.

Derrickson’s become a much better director since “Sinister,” his 2012 breakthrough horror movie and first collaboration with both Cargill and Hawke. Behind the camera, Derrickson’s at his best in scenes where Finney explores the Grabber’s basement, pulling up floor tiles or digging behind solid-looking walls. Derrickson’s also smart enough to let Hawke suggest some things about his character through the abrupt shifts in the Grabber’s tone of voice and body language. That’s especially impressive since Hawke performs most of his scenes in a bifurcated mask that either hides or highlights his character’s leering, omnipresent smile.

“The Black Phone” ultimately works better than most other recent King-like or King-style horror pastiche. And while Derrickson and Cargill might’ve delivered a more essential variation on their movie’s familiar tropes if they spent more time rooting around the darker corners of Hill’s troubling story, they ultimately play to their creative strengths, with some help from their key collaborators.

“The Black Phone” opens Friday in U.S. theaters nationwide.