Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill were supposed to work on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness but after a creative fallout with Disney, both men left the project and went their separate ways.
Derrickson wanted the sequel to be the first scary Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film and explore more of the gothic and horror elements from the comic books than the first installment. Cargill explained that he and Derrickson conceived a story that went in a different direction from what Marvel wanted. Derrickson said leaving the film was a difficult decision, but he did not want to compromise on a movie that was different from what he wanted to make.
However, leaving that film allowed the duo to work on The Black Phone, a film that they were allowed to make without creative restrictions. Disney’s loss was Universal’s gain and the two have provided one of the better horror films in the last decade.
The Black Phone takes place in the late 1970s in a small town outside Denver, Colorado. A serial killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has abducted multiple children in the area and has the entire community on edge.
Brother and Sister Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live in the area with an abusive alcoholic father. Finney is a kid who is horribly bullied at school and even when his sister tries to save him, things go downhill for the both of them. Gwen has psychic dreams that allow her to know details of the kidnapping that they never released publicly. As the police are looking deeper into the Grabber and Gwen’s knowledge of criminal details, Finney encounters The Grabber and is abducted.
Trapped in a basement, Finney is in a fight for survival and the only tool to his advantage is a broken phone that rings, and on the other side are the spirit of The Grabber’s victim who tries to help him escape.
The Black Phone is a suspenseful horror film that plays on an old-school societal fear of missing children. Ethan Hawke plays The Grabber and the film lives on his unsettling presence as a psychotic murderer with a vendetta against young boys. The Grabber’s monstrous mask reminds audiences that monsters are still among us especially looking at the real-life event of human trafficking.
The film doesn’t rely on jump scares for its horror but picks its spots when they happen for maximum effect. The focus of the film is more on the characters than the story. Story-wise you have a small town semi-bottle film that mixes a supernatural element. Madeleine McGraw is a potty mouth young girl whose connection with her powers is given down but conversely, the film drops the ball on the supernatural character with her brother.
The Black Phone presents a series of fleshed-out characters who all have a purpose in a greater narrative. Ethan Hawke gives a memorable performance on par with classic horror icons despite the fact you rarely see his violent side in action. The children in the film are given just enough distinctness to serve their purpose to the story.
In what is more of a throwback 1970s horror film that your modern day Halloween flick, The Black Phone proves that for all of his faults, Derrickson with Cargill is a winning combination in the genre of horror. At times, it is unsettling but The Black Phone’s brilliance makes it a must watch for movie fans starving for classic horror style outside of The Conjuring universe.