Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw in a still
  • Release Date: 23/06/2022
  • Cast: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke
  • Director: Scott Derrickson

A temperamental and spooky thriller that borders on being a horror film

— Ambar Chatterjee

I was excited about watching The Black Phone ever since I saw its first trailer and also learned that it was directed by Scott Derrickson, the man behind Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I am a huge fan of both the films and believe that they are two of the finest horror films to have come out of Hollywood in the last two decades or so. The trailer made it apparent that The Black Phone was going to be a story about a 13-year-old boy who is kidnapped by a serial killer and held in captivity. While in captivity, he starts receiving calls on a disconnected and defunct phone that is placed in his holding cell. Through this phone, the previous victims of the serial killer contact the boy and help me find a way out of captivity. A novel concept indeed! There were also a few flashes of the superb and genuine jump scares that we have come to associate with Derrickson films. It was apparent that while this film might not be a genuine horror film featuring spirits, ghosts, etc; it was most definitely going to have some supernatural elements in its story. 

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film was playing all around Guwahati this week. When I finally got to watch this film, I immediately realized that this was a film that was about a whole lot of other things than just a kidnapping and the waiting of a young boy to be butchered by a killer. The film was also about issues like domestic abuse, peer pressure, bullying at school, brother-sister camaraderie, coping with tragedy, and mental well-being. It tries to put forward a message that even amidst all these challenges, life still finds a way. The efficiency and swiftness with which Derrickson touches on all these different subjects and themes and successfully get his point across were effective and affecting. 

It was not only the best example of how to economically put your point forward in a visual narrative but was also a masterclass in making a point using the least possible footage and dialogue. It was very easy for the director to either overstretch the narrative or get diverted from the central point when he had so much to deal with but he remains on track but at the same time weaves in the other elements effectively to his central narrative and delivers a compounded effect. The result is one of the finest thrillers of recent times that is characterized by great performances and authoritative direction. 

In a film of this nature, a lot depended on the performances to not only capture the imagination of the audiences but also extract the necessary thrill and horror elements. Almost all of the important characters in the film are kids and it was absolutely critical that these kids performed to a level by which they were able to connect with the audiences. Thankfully each and every child actor not only understands the respective character that is assigned to him/her but also does exceedingly well in bringing out the nuances of it as most of these characters have different facets and dramatic elements associated with it.

Ethan Hawke as the Grabber in a still

Mason Thames as Finney, the 13-yer-old kidnapped boy is brilliant. Except for one sequence where he sees a demented vision and still doesn’t react to the extent that any normal person would have, he looks and feels spot on with the mood, setting, and layout of the character and the circumstances that he is in. He starts off as someone who is not weak but also as someone unable to fight for himself. He is constantly bullied but never stands up for himself. Thus when he is kidnapped and put in a situation where the only way for him to survive is to stand up and defend himself against a marauding killer by being aggressive and taking down a man who had previously overpowered kids who had pummeled Finney in school felt overtly uncharacteristic for him. This infused a lot of thrill and drama in the sequences where he is shown doing things that he would never have under different circumstances. 

This also results in most of the altercation between Finney and the killer turning out to be thrilling as Finney does things that are uncharacteristic of him and he does them with a lot of hiccups resulting in the audience always being at the edge of their seats thinking whether he would survive the ordeal or not. Every element and aspect of the character of Finney is wonderfully sold by Mason Thames who in a matter of minutes forges a strong bond with the audiences and makes them care for his character throughout. 

Madeleine McGraw as Gwen, Finney’s sister is wonderful. She is the only tragically comic character in the film. She has a dirty mouth and is not afraid to foul mouth even men of the law enforcement. She is also someone who is not afraid to fight back violently when her brother is attacked and the only person she is actually afraid of is her abusive father. She has a special gift that she uses to locate her brother’s whereabouts and this leads to some interesting drama as well. Gwen’s character is loaded with different elements and characteristics that not only make her an endlessly entertaining character to watch but also one who is resourceful and adds a lot to the overall narrative. Madeleine McGraw was easily my favorite actor in the film. 

We have come to expect nothing but the very best from Ethan Hawke and as the serial killer known only as “the Grabber”, he turns in another fine performance. He spends most of the film wearing different alterations of a mask and based on the version he is wearing we get to understand the state of mind he is in. It is my hunch that the character had shades of multiple-personality disorder as his mannerisms and behavior towards Finney would change drastically with him wearing different versions of the mask. This made an already scary villain even more unpredictable and dangerous. Hawke is able to get under your skin with his rendition of a sick and demented murderer who enjoys killing kids and thinks of it as a game. This would have been a lesser film had Ethan Hawke not turned in such a terrific performance.  

A still from the film

While this is not a horror film, there are supernatural elements involved and there are also a lot of jump-scares that are genuine and happen at junctures when you least expect them to. I love this aspect of Derrickson’s filmmaking; he never throws false scares at you and that is what makes all his scares worth the wait. The majority of the scares of this film spring from the feeling of what the killer would do to Finney at a given time or from knowledge of what he had done to the other kids who appear as spirits and tell Finney from time to time what they had endured. The setting and mood of the film are equally unnerving and play an important role in infusing the narrative with a sense of dread throughout.

I had a great time with The Black Phone.  While this is not as scary as Derrickson’s other horror films, it does keep you interested and thrilled for the duration of its runtime. The wonderful performances from the ensemble cast make it that much more worthwhile and ensure that you are haunted by the narrative. Derrickson’s direction is in place and that ensures that the audiences get what they had signed up for. If you are in the mood for a temperamental and spooky thriller that can double as a horror film, The Black Phone might be your best bet for this week.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


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