Kids on bikes are back BABY! I mean kind of. The Black Phone getting a wide and massive release in a few weeks is the summer blockbuster/thriller/horror tentpole that has come to define the season. It is difficult to characterize a movie written by C. Robert Cargill, and Scott Derrickson (who is also directing the film) based off of a short story by Joe Hill, as a sleeper hit but The Black Phone seems to be flying below the radar. Perhaps it is the fact that the release date has been moved a few times, or perhaps the studio is working out how to promote it but the movie going crowd should be buzzing. There is something everyone will like in this film and as a result it is poised to take the box office by storm.
I managed to catch The Black Phone as the closing night feature at The Overlook Film Festival. It was the perfect film to close out the festival. Deeply moving, nicely paced, with characters EVERYONE wants to root for there is a lot to like about The Black Phone. The story starts as we are introduced to Finney Shaw a preteen who loves playing baseball and looking at girls. He takes turns with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) looking out for his barely functioning father who seems to have turned to the bottle upon the suicide of his wife and the subsequent pressure of raising the children alone. The relationship between the siblings seems fresh and interesting as the two look out for one another at school and at home. Their mothers suicide has forged a bond between the two that feels impenetrable. The two must navigate the growing number of preteen abductions in their Denver suburb. The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) eventually kidnaps Finney and the bulk of the story revolves around how he is able to talk to past victims on a disconnected phone in The Grabber’s cellar. Some of these “ghosts” are friends of Finney, some don’t remember their own name but each seems to form a different archetype that many of us might find familiar from kid gang movies from the eighties. While the film is decidedly darker in tone it is easy to draw connections to movies like The Goonies or The Monster Squad. I could watch a group of precocious teens beat bad guys all day long and The Black Phone captures that vibe.
The Black Phone is not an eighties adventure film. Derrickson and Cargill’s script leaves no doubt that this is a horror film. Select use of gore coupled with the alarming entrance of each ghost had me watching between my fingers when the film turned dark. Each time The Black Phone rings I prepared for the next terrifying roller coaster drop. Finney’s fear is real. The abuse he faces in the basement runs directly parallel to the abuse we see him and sister endure at home. At least one of the writers has a connection to Texas and with news out of the state last week it felt clear that in a world where we abandon our responsibility to take care of our children they must be willing to do it themselves. Which makes the films ending even more powerful and satisfying. The audience at The Overlook clapped and whistled loudly. I expect the same when general audiences finally get the payoff.
As each ghost gives Finney a bit of information the cellar becomes a bit of an escape room. Each extra piece of rope, or screw, or piece of crumbling cement could become a tool of liberation. Bringing in elements of The Great Escape only widen the movies appeal while also creating tension that we might think difficult to produce in such a small and tight environment. The movies creepy central location only adds to the terror Finney and the other boys feel.
Ethan Hawke is suitably horrific, hiding his face behind a series of grotesque masks. The true star of the film is Mason Thames who sparkles in front of the camera. Thames has to carry a bulk of this film on his back as he performs often by himself in the basement. He is kid for sure but from minute one the audience can tell he is different. He is a survivor with some of his mother’s gifts. It is easy to cheer for what Thames is doing with Finney. He has lived under the burden of his mother’s suicide and fathers alcoholism for a long time and that has taught him how to survive. The work both young actors do to build the relationship between siblings is evident as we pull just as much for Gwen as we do Finney.
Standing up to bullies seemed to be a reoccurring theme at The Overlook Film Festival and The Black Phone perfectly captures the idea. The bad guys may have short term victories but plucky kids who work together will always win out eventually. Pretty rad if you ask me. The Black Phone comes to a theatre near you June 24th.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.