I’m not sure that it has been mentioned yet, but I believe the main reason we ended up going with all 2022 movies for this year’s Shocktober is that it has been a uniquely solid year for horror movies. Not only in terms of the quality of horror films that have been released this year, but also in terms of their viability at the box office in a year when big studio movies are often making a fraction of what it took to make them. The Black Phone very much embodied this, as it made about eight times its budget despite the fact that it doesn’t have a ton to offer that’s groundbreaking or new to its genre. Still, it got decent reviews and it’s a horror movie, which apparently is all it takes to be a hit these days. Fortunately, it’s still a solid little psychological horror film that shakes out to be distinctive and well-made enough to stand out in a fairly crowded year in its genre.
The Black Phone centers on Finn (played by Mason Thames), a nerdy kid who’s still pretty good at baseball, who lives in a small Colorado town where kids keep getting abducted by someone they refer to as “The Grabber”. After Bruce, one of Finn’s baseball nemeses gets abducted, his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) has a vision of Bruce’s abduction, which then leads to her being questioned by the police. Her deadbeat dad (Jeremy Davies) scolds her for this, insinuating that Finn and Gwen’s mother also had these same types of psychic visions. One of Finn’s other classmates is also abducted by The Grabber, and then a few days later, Finn is kidnapped himself by a very pale man (Ethan Hawke) wearing a demonic mask and a tophat while carrying a bunch of black balloons.
Finn then finds himself trapped in the masked man’s basement, where the man is vague about his intentions, but it can’t be assumed that they’re good. Next to the dirty old mattress that is Finn’s only furniture in the basement is a black rotary phone, which The Grabber says doesn’t work. As the police struggle to find leads on where Finn’s captor is, Finn begins receiving calls from the phone in his basement room. They’re from the kids who have previously been captured by The Grabber, and over the course of the rest of the movie, they give hints as to what Finn can do to escape. Meanwhile, Gwen has various visions explaining what happened to the abducted kids, which ultimately sends the police toward The Grabber’s house as Finn devises a way of overpowering him.
Despite this being the first (mostly) pure horror movie I’ve reviewed for Shocktober, I’ll admit I didn’t find it particularly scary. I could definitely imagine a group of teens going into this movie hoping to crap their pants then coming out of the theater and being a bit disappointed. However, I think there is something commendable about the fact that it rarely goes for cheap scares, and instead remains fairly grounded, even if it does feature ghosts and visions and a guy with a fairly straightforward slasher aesthetic.
First off, the idea of a child abduction story is more real-life disturbing than the typical content of horror movies, and this movie probably has more in common with the Oscar-winning Room than it does than say, Saw (not that I would know since I haven’t seen any of the Saw movies). Also, the fact that it takes place in the late ’70s in a sleepy mountain town is a nice touch, since it taps into the fact that a lot of serial killers were showing up in these types of locales at this particular period in time.
This all gives the movie a bit of the vibe of a true crime story paired with horror elements, even if the story of course has too many supernatural elements to ever hold water as a true crime story. While this approach does leave a little to be desired in terms of kills and thrills, it still gives it an overall polish that makes it obvious why director Scott Derrickson was tapped to direct a Marvel movie. Even on a much smaller budget and with pretty minimal locations, he still gives the movie’s small town a morose menace while squeezing every penny out of a much smaller budget than he would’ve gotten if he’d seen through directing Doctor Strange 2.
While the story itself doesn’t have a ton to offer in terms of twists and turns, what still makes it very watchable is its performances. The child actors in it are particularly good, which is all the more impressive since they more or less have to carry the film considering the absence of its adult actors for much of its run time. Even Ethan Hawke isn’t in this movie all that much, despite how much his character was all over the marketing for it. In fact, I’d be surprised if it took him more than a day or two to film all of his scenes. But, he makes a big enough impression that he doesn’t need to be onscreen for too long, and in the end feels all a part of The Black Phone‘s ability to do a lot with a little. Or, at least compared to Marvel money.