The Black Phone (2021)


A 13-year old boy is kidnapped and locked away in the basement of a serial killer. As the killer tries to engage the boy in mind games, the boy starts receiving otherworldly phone calls from a disconnected phone on the basement wall. The callers? The killer’s past victims — with advice on how to survive the ordeal and kill the killer.

I was weary of seeing another kidnap & torture movie, but The Black Phone thankfully avoids torture as a selling point. Dread comes instead from psychological and emotional angles, manifested superbly in the leading performance from young actor Mason Thames. Thames plays a bullied student who essentially ‘nuts up’ and becomes a man through the script’s ordeals. If that sounds toxic, it’s not. Thames’ character is actually a very sensitive boy, whose relationships with his determined little sister and a few of the killer’s ghostly victims deliver some of the film’s best moments.

As good as Thames is and as well as his character’s emotional arc holds the movie together, The Black Phone has a problem with verisimilitude — making us believe these things are really happening. I can suspend my disbelief for the supernatural phone. But the police characters are unnecessarily clueless and it’s hard to believe the killer wouldn’t notice the many ways Thames modifies the basement in his attempts to escape. The killer himself, played by Ethan Hawke, never feels like a real person, either. He’s scary at times, puzzling at others, even funny on a few occasions. I’m glad that we don’t get an obligatory flashback that explains his backstory, but the odd assembly of glimpses we get into his personality don’t add up to anything cogent or compelling. We should feel more passionately about this character — more hatred or disturbing sympathy, or both.

The film gives Thames a wonderfully determined, live-wire little sister, played very well by Madeleine McGraw. McGraw chews the scenery in act one, so much so that we hope she might become the true hero of the movie who saves her brother. Instead, she’s relegated to an unconvincing subplot in which she has mysterious dreams and visions (in cheesy 8mm film) that lead her to finding the killer’s location.

In its broadest, most vital stroke, The Black Phone works — we care about its main character and his predicament. It saves the movie — makes it worth watching for horror fans. But so many of the film’s finer details — including a pedestrian score and unnecessary directorial flourishes — hold it back from exceptionalism.

With Jeremy Davies and Miguel Cazarez Mora. Directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister). Based on a short story by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King).

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