The Black Phone reunites Ethan Hawke and Scott Derrickson in another sinister horror, adapted from the titular short story by Joe Hill.

Scott Derrickson’s disappointing exit from the Marvel machine returned him to his horror roots. 6 years on from his last film, Doctor Strange, the Colorado-native goes back home to film a little horror in collaboration with Sinister alum Ethan Hawke. If Hawke was the protagonist of that endeavour, The Black Phone makes him a full-blown villain, complete with an easily replicable Halloween costume to boot.

In 1978, innocent teenagers are going missing. Endless search parties come up empty as innocent children vanish almost without a trace, with only black balloons left in their wake. Finney (Mason Thomas), a science club attendee with more than a few bullying troubles in school and at home, finds himself as the latest victim of The Grabber (Hawke). With little to go on, Finney’s little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of The Grabber and save her brother’s life.

an image of ethan hawke in the black phone
©Universal Pictures

An odd sense of comfort comes with a director returning to what brought them their initial success in their careers. Not dissimilarly to James Wan, who left horror briefly to create a pair of hugely successful franchise films in Furious 7 and Aquaman before he directed the remarkable Malignant, Derrickson feels like a safe pair of hands at the helm of The Black Phone. 

Instantly, the period setting is established with its brilliant costuming and set design while an air of unease and discontent dominates the streets and the school corridors. Such is the confidence in the director’s ability to tell a visual story, small glances and blink and you’ll miss it moments allude to major developments in the story. The momentary appearance of a black van before the opening credits is all we need to know to fill in the blanks. After Finney’s disappearance, his time in The Grabber’s basement is very effectively claustrophobic, using every square inch of the dark room to convey how trapped our poor protagonist is. Derrickson is a sure hand after 17 years in mainstream Hollywood, and The Black Phone continues his impressive trend of making very effective scares.

While The Black Phone certainly has its fair share of horror elements, the film feels far more in line with a crime mystery than it does an all-out horror film. There are more than a few homages to films like Zodiac and Prisoners here, but that’s arguably its best weapon to sneak its more effective scares through. Major jump scares are few and far between, but the small number there of them are certain to catch the audience off guard.

More often than not, the scariest elements in The Black Phone do not come from the paranormal as Derrickson and his regular writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, mine fear from very realistic sources as the subject matter of child abduction and domestic abuse make for incredibly disquieting viewing. The Black Phone is filled to the brim with grim reminders of just how dark its plot is; there isn’t anything that goes bump in the night here, The Black Phone exists in the nasty environment of real-world horrors.

Central to its story is an ensemble of impressive performances of both good and evil. Mason Thomas is an effective damsel in distress as he scours his dingy environment for a way out, trying endless solutions to escape his situation with the commitment and endeavour many horror protagonists could only dream of. E. Roger Mitchell fills the archetype of hardboiled detective brilliantly, but he’s aided expertly by the star of the show, Finney’s sister, Gwen.

McGraw is terrific throughout, never faltering in her quest to find her brother and using her intelligence and wit to come to a solution. Her relationship with her brother is a real highlight, as the two face a horrible situation at home with their abusive father that they need each other and never let any typical sibling squabbles come between them. Despite being the younger sister, Gwen offers Finney advice as much as he protects her, and a simple shot of her head resting on his shoulder as they watch a film together is the film’s principal theme of the importance of familial bonds and friendships in a nutshell.

©Universal Pictures

The titular black phone comes into play as a symbol of these themes too as the film’s quasi-paranormal element as former victims of The Grabber talk Finney through potential means of escape. It’s left deliberately vague as to whether its scenes are happening or not, but such sequences emphasise the importance of seeking solace in others even in the darkest of situations.

Of course, The Black Phone would not nearly be as effective if not for such an impressive, frightening performance from Ethan Hawke. So accustomed are we to his role as the charming lead in films like The Before Trilogy that such a heel turn is a surprise but a remarkably effective one. Hawke’s face is kept mostly hidden for much of the action, covered in white face paint or horrific masks that Hawke achieves fear through his eyes more often than not. The Grabber has such an unhinged quality to him, never wavering from the belief that he’s showing mercy to Finney, and Hawke plays it brilliantly. Some elements are left somewhat underdeveloped as The Grabber’s brother enters the fray, but this detracts nothing from Hawke. It’s a dominating performance from a genuine screen icon as he torments his young victim with something as simple as scrambled eggs.

Taken as a horror film, The Black Phone could underwhelm as it’s mostly light on scares, but it’s far more effective when viewed as a crime thriller. Through this lens, Derrickson has crafted a very unsettling chiller. It plays on the audience’s expectations and uses its unexpected genre switch to deliver limited but effective moments of terror. It’s well-acted and well-executed across the board, filled with tense sequences that will have you gripping your armrest that little bit tighter.

Rating: ★★★½

The Black Phone is in cinemas nationwide now.