By Jared Rasic
Horror movies have always been the redheaded stepchild of the motion picture
industry. It’s funny because they’ve always made lots of money and stayed popular with
audiences (even through the Great Depression), but as a genre they’ve never really gotten the respect they’ve deserved. In fact, it’s one of the few genres you can just dismiss completely when you say “Oh, I don’t like horror movies” and no one bats an eye.
With the advent of “elevated” horror, and that A24 brand of horror like “Hereditary,”
“The Witch” and “Men”–where the thematic content and subtext almost outweighs the
spookiness factor–the genre started at lease getting some semblance of critical respect even as the technical aspects and performances were ignored come awards season. I mean, look at Toni Collette’s work in “Hereditary” and tell me with a straight face that there was a better performance in 2018. Every few years there’s something like “The Shining” or “The Exorcist” that gets a ton of respect and stands the test of time, but they’re few and far between.
Director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill already have one pretty solid
horror flick under their belts with 2012’s “Sinister,” “but I would say that their new flick, “The
Black Phone,” is better in almost every way. Adapting a short story by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King and a damn fine horror author in his own right), Derrickson and Cargill aren’t making something as disturbing as “Sinister” or “Hereditary.” Instead they’ve made the anti-elevated horror movie.
Without telling you too much, I will tell you that “The Black Phone” follows a 13-year-old boy
named Finney who gets kidnapped by a creepy masked psycho the entire town has dubbed “The Grabber” and must use some very unconventional means to try and escape. It’s definitely weird saying this about a movie that’s about a child kidnapper, but “The Black Phone” is actually way more fun than it is scary. Since the movie takes place in 1978, it feels like a classic throwback to those spook-a-blast movies when you could catch a double feature at the drive-in on a Saturday night.
Ultimately, the weakest aspect of the film is that it’s not very scary, but I’m not sure it
was trying to be. It’s just an old-fashioned kid v. grownup tale with good v. evil as its thematic core built around a deeply unsettling performance from Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber.”
Without Hawke (and the fantastic child performances), this movie wouldn’t work half as
well as it does, even though Derrickson does a great job setting up the ‘70’s vibe and the creepy tone. Hawke rarely ever plays a bad guy but it’s a genuinely terrific performance he delivers here.
“The Black Phone” isn’t going to scare the hell out of you. It has a handful of solid jump
scares and a wonderful central villain in “The Grabber” and his demon mask, but “The Black Phone” deserves acclaim because it remembers to have fun instead of trying to send its audience into shock or trigger their PTSD. Don’t get me wrong, I love to walk out of a theater deeply disturbed and needing to call my grandma, but it’s nice just to have a good time at a horror movie every once and awhile. Horror, like humanity, contains multitudes…elevated or not.