You know Blumhouse is feeling themselves because they straight up pilfered Marvel’s “look at all the cool movies we made” intro. THE horror production company has found a formula that makes money and is also creatively fulfilling for the actors involved, leading to franchises like the Purge, Ouija, Sinister and Happy Death Day, as well as one off magic like The Invisible Man, Get Out, and (I can’t say this enough) a legit terrifying film about a KILLER MIRROR! Blumhouse’s latest, The Black Phone, runs it back with the Sinister creative team on something new and fresh, pulling off that brilliant production magic again, to the delight of horror fans everywhere.
In north Denver in 1978, young kids in the area are scared of a crazy man known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), who snatches kids out of nowhere, leaving no trace of their existence. Two worried teens are Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), siblings raised by single dad Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Even if the Grabber wasn’t around, the pair have tough lives. Fin is bullied constantly, only saved by tough friends like Robin (Cazarez Mora). Gwen’s issues are more strange: she is having dreams that draw the attention of Detective Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Detective Miller (Troy Rudeseal) of the Denver police, drawing the family potentially into the path of the Grabber.
Fresh off of Dr. Strange, Scott Derrickson gets back into his horror roots with The Black Phone. He picked an interesting script; turns out Stephen King’s son Joe Hill writes a lot like his dad. The scenes in the basement between the Grabber and his victim are always going to be compelling because of the inherent stakes. So that means the 20% of the movie you need to give the audience time to catch their breath has to be filled with something that doesn’t bore them to death. Derrickson devotes that time to Gwen’s gifts. Thematically, this part of the story ties nicely into what is going on in Grabber hell, hinting at supernatural forces that might intervene, either for good or evil. But maybe more importantly, Derrickson struck gold with Madeleine McGraw, who enters the movie like a whirling durvish. Most of the 20% revolves around her quest to figure out what her dreams mean, that nicely allows audiences to take a breath though laughter, as McGraw goes back and forth on her beliefs.
The horror meat of The Black Phone is in Fin and the Grabber’s interactions in his basement. Derrickson mostly relies on an unsettling atmosphere which Ethan Hawke helps conjure with his creepy performance. When Hawke isn’t around, Derrickson saves a couple well crafted jump scares to keep the audience on their toes: I heard audible screams a few times. That corrosive setting is horrible for Fin, who knows how weak he is. And yet, Derrickson keeps giving us hope in strange and peculiar ways, all that tie neatly into the conclusion the movie maneuvers towards. There’s maybe a backstory or two that are poorly placed, but The Black Phone works more than it doesn’t, because of Derrickson and Hawke’s sure hands in front of and behind the camera.
Similar to the age of the kids in the movie, The Black Phone feels best as an entry horror movie for new converts to the genre. A “boy slumber party” staple on the streaming services. Unrelated, but Fin/Robin got it right in my opinion: Enter the Dragon is better than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You know who’s not great for 11 year old sleepovers? Leatherface. *Shiver*