The Black Phone Review: This Killer Thriller Grabs Your Attention and Never Lets Go

After spending a few years working with Marvel Studios on the development of Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson has returned to his horror roots for the first time since 2014's Deliver Us From Evil. Not that the first Doctor Strange movie didn't have some serious horror elements to it, but Derrickson's latest effort is a much more classic form of horror, one that many became accustomed to seeing from the director in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The Black Phone reunites Derrickson with Sinister leading man Ethan Hawke and, while it may not be quite as surface-level scary as their previous effort, this movie brings the kind of chills that resonate with you long after the credits roll.

The Black Phone turns back the clock to 1970s America to follow the story of a small town being ravaged by a serial kidnapper dubbed "The Grabber." In yet another effortlessly wonderful performance, Ethan Hawke plays the Grabber, posing as a magician and snatching young boys into his van, keeping them locked up in a basement before eventually killing them. Enter young Finney (Mason Thames), who serves as the Grabber's latest victim. He aims to make his escape with the help of the boys who were taken and killed before him, calling him from the beyond via a phone in the Grabber's basement. He also gets some help from his younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who possesses some supernatural abilities of her own.

It's easy to look at The Black Phone as a showcase for Ethan Hawke, and it very much highlights his immense talents as an actor. He's masked most of the time (the mask consistently changing its expression adds so much to its fear factor), but he's able to create more terrifying layers with just his body language and voice than most actors can when they have their entire repertoire at their disposal. 

Hawke's excellence, however, is expected at this point. He's one of the best there is at what he does. Thames and McGraw, his young costars, are the ones that really steal the show. They deliver two of the best and most unexpected performances from adolescent actors in recent memory, and both are talented far beyond their years.

It helps that they're giving some incredible material to work with. Joe Hill's original short story is great in its own right, but Derrickson and co-writer/longtime collaborator C. Robert Cargill do the story justice while finding unique ways to make it work on the screen. The terror is a slow build. While it doesn't offer much in the way of jump scares or instant horror gratification, that underlying terror consistently bubbles under the surface long after the film ends. Those neighborhood streets remind you of your own and cause you to look both ways an extra time or two. Hawke's frighteningly calm demeanor is reflected in people you come across at the grocery store. Every van sends the slightest chill down your spine. The Black Phone is so effective in its horror because we can each see our lives represented in the characters and stories on-screen.

While the story takes place in the '70s, it's scary how much it reminds you of life today. There's a theme throughout The Black Phone about victims being forgotten and the world moving on. One kid goes missing, the town mourns, only to forget him to move on to the next victim. There's some very literal and haunting imagery of one "Missing" flyer covering up another just like it. That visual hits on another level in our current climate of tragedies, where the victims of one mass shooting are remembered only until the next one occurs, whether that be in Buffalo, Uvalde, or the next unsuspecting American town. The victims are many and no one seems to have enough thoughts or prayers to go around.

The Black Phone sends a message that every victim matters. Each of the boys taken before Finney has a name, a face, a personality, and an important part to play in making sure Finney breaks the cycle. Believe it or not, The Black Phone is a surprisingly hopeful film, and much of that hope comes from those that are lost. Their voices are a rallying cry for grace, meaning, and remembrance. That beauty plays so well against the backdrop of the Grabber's terror.

Derrickson's latest effort isn't as outright horrifying as some of his previous horror entries, but The Black Phone represents a huge step forward in the mastery of his craft. Along with his stunning cast, Derrickson weaves a haunting tale that leaves a long-lasting impression.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Black Phone hits theaters on June 24th.