Black Phone (2021) has no answering machine

Black Phone is a 2021 horror movie with plenty of white-knuckled tension and is primarily about survival. The movie stars young kid actors Mason Thames and Madeline McGraw, with Ethan Hawke thrown in for color. Thames and McGraw are put through the ringer in this one and they deal with some serious material here, which I hope they’re okay with later in life. There’s no gore or heavy slasher drama so maybe it’s just an unfounded worry. Besides, a mysterious Black Phone helps and consoles Thames after he’s kidnapped by a serial killer and put into a basement, which is convenient for the story and might help worrying viewers. In this way, Thames as Finney is never in danger for his life, because he always has a hidden strength, given to him by the mysterious Black Phone, transforming him into one of the Hardy Boys or a Scooby Doo character, to outwit the dubious Ethan Hawke. Too bad he can’t record the Black Phone’s lessons.

The characters experience everything Derrickson remembers from when he was growing up, and you might also find something recognizable, like playing baseball with other kids, dealing with bullies, and coming of age. This is why I think many people think this is based on a true story. Derrickson likes generic details and building a nostalgic atmosphere, but I don’t think a lot of his viewers will be old enough to chime in on the realism. Still, Derrickon’s work is good enough to make the world feel authentic and lived in.

The American family sucks. Director Scott Derrickson paints a less than idyllic picture of growing up in the 70s, with hidden dangers around the corner, and a horrible, authoritarian family life. Finney and his sister have an abusive father and both are victim to physical abuse. This approach quickly creates sympathetic leads but it’s very easy to do. It’s like Derrickson is trying to take a page from Rob Zombie or something. Finney later becomes the target of the serial killer nicknamed The Grabber.

Derrickson doesn’t stay with Finney, often cutting away to a police investigation and his psychic sister. McGraw as the sister does a great job and displays a wonderful amount of genuine concern for her brother, as she rides around on her bike looking for him. Eventually the clues lead her in the right direction, so she just goes off to get the police, simple as that. We cut back and forth between scenes like that, and Finney trapped in the basement. The amount of dark drama is probably limited by the actor’s age, but there are some implied sexual dangers, as the Grabber sits upstairs waiting with a whipping belt in one scene, having left the door open for Finney to use. The Black Phone saves him though, the voices of The Grabber’s other victims explaining vague details about what to do and how to do it. It sorta works like a Goosebumps style horror movie, but it’s not much more than that. I’m not saying every horror movie needs to break new ground or be ultra heavy but it’s difficult to understand the movie’s themes if it’s not allowed to go into details.

Overall, this is a decent movie. This is the kind of movie meant for younger viewers and has many elements newcomers to horror will find appealing. The setting of the movie also is nostalgic but that doesn’t go very far considering the viewing audience. Ethan Hawke is also wasted, never really having a scene to shine, just a few individual scenes showing The Grabber as a quirky killer, playing games with Finney as he just keeps him in the basement in what feels like an indefinite amount of time. The Black Phone gimmick works well for the storytelling but it’s a contrivance, and fans of realism won’t like it. Most of the film works because of Thames and McGraw, who put on great performances, maybe inspiring other teen viewers to become movie fans themselves. However, Derrickson doesn’t really teach much of a lesson, beyond a horrid survival story, one achieved only through violence. Finney refuses at first to become violent, unable to commit to punching a bully but eventually he changes and becomes a cunning killer himself, surviving to get the girl.