After IT, Stand by Me, Carrie, The Shining, and the lower quality Firestarter, Pet Sematary, and Children of the Corn, Stephen King horror movies featuring children and examining childhood are now almost their own genre. With The Black Phone, Joe Hill, King’s son, follows his father’s footsteps and contributes one of the best “childhood as horror” entries in recent memory. Based on Hill’s short story and directed by Scott Derrickson, The Black Phone is the story of a kidnapped boy who is able to communicate with past victims of a serial killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) via a black phone in the room in which he’s being held.
The plot is a clever set-up for some solid jump scares and a persistent feeling of dread, but the most compelling aspect of The Black Phone is the depiction of childhood as brutal and oppressive. In The Black Phone, childhood is always about feeling endlessly inadequate, at risk, and that the world is constantly on the attack. A conception of childhood as brutality lies at the heart of this film’s horror and what it’s trying to do thematically.
The Black Phone wouldn’t work without strong performances by its child actors, and Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are up to the film’s challenges. McGraw particularly delivers a bone-chilling scene during the film’s first act when her character interacts with her abusive father (Jeremy Davies). Thames must shoulder much of the film’s heavy-lifting, and he does so ably. Ethan Hawke, reuniting with the writers/director of 2012’s Sinister, plays The Grabber as ridiculous as much as menacing, and the mixture largely works.
The plot concludes a little too conveniently for my tastes, especially the conclusion of the plot thread involving the abusive father. And Hill, like King, imagines a black-and-white morality where some people are just bad without the nuance that given to other characters.
But The Black Phone’s final moments do not take away from the overall brilliant work. Childhood is rife with all kinds of horror, and Derrickson, Thames, McGraw, and Hawke turn The Black Phone into an unflinching look at the brutality of adolescence.
4 out of 5 stars