As Universal’s distribution head Jim Orr said in introducing Tuesday night’s CinemaCon screening of the studio’s upcoming late June release The Black Phone, studios don’t normally bring a movie like this to show in its entirety at a theater-owners convention two months ahead of opening unless they know they have the goods.
With this one reuniting producer Jason Blum and Blumhouse with director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill — all having worked together on 2010’s Sinister — Universal does have the goods, and then some. Being marketed apparently as a horror film, with a poster dominated by a fully terrifyingly masked and horned Ethan Hawke, what this late 1970s-set movie really is about is the trauma of youth crossing from childhood into teen years, more appropriately falling into the suspense thriller category than the kind of standard horror the marketing seems to indicate.
Hopefully audiences won’t be put off by that approach, because this is a truly effective movie that defies easy description but should appeal to a wider crowd. It originally premiered at the 2021 Fantastic Fest and was planned for a January release but Blum and the studio felt it needed to be seen in theaters, thus the smart move to a prime summer slot and exclusive theatrical run.
Based on the 2014 Joe Hill short story comparisons to Stephen King, and particularly It, will be inevitable, but The Black Phone marches to its own beat as we are introduced to its protagonist, young teen Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), an ace baseball pitcher who nevertheless finds himself subjected to constant harm by school bullies, as well as a single alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who is in over his head in raising Finney and his younger, foul-mouthed but quite religious sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). Gwen’s psychic dreams are given credence by local authorities (if not her own dad, who physically abuses her and orders her to stop) when she is able to pinpoint an abduction of one of the Colorado town’s young teen boys.
It seems a serial killer is on the loose and several boys are disappearing. Little does she know her beloved brother is about to become one of them as a black van stops and a clown-like magician (Hawke) appears, and using a gaggle of black balloons knocks out Finney and throws him into the back of the vehicle. Finney soon finds himself locked away in a basement, the latest victim of The Grabber as Hawke’s disturbed and masked man is known in the town. Assured he will suffer no harm, a cat-and-mouse game ensues between them. A black dial-up phone on the wall which The Grabber said was inoperative starts ringing and Finney finds himself in conversations with previous victims, now dead, but offering tips on how to escape without getting caught, something each of them failed to do. Meanwhile, the feisty and determined Gwen begins her own dreamlike quest to find the whereabouts of her brother and bring him to safety.
The best movies of any genre are the ones that focus on character giving us a reason to root for them. These filmmakers put the thrills and chills (and there are many) in second position to favor advancing a story that also stands in as an allegory for the terrors of growing up and losing the innocence of childhood in a very dark world, this one inhabited not just by The Grabber, but also bullies who mercilessly beat up their fearful schoolmates, unhinged parents, and other realities of life. The Black Phone may also be known someday as a star-making film, with both Thames perfectly anchoring the story as Finney, a kid whose own awkwardness and eventual determination to survive has us cheering for him, and particularly McGraw, who steals every scene she has with a seeming ease that says this movie will not be the last we hear of her. She is a true standout.
All the teen roles are well played in fact, and there is some amusing support from James Ransone as a drug-addicted guy named Max who basically does lines of coke upstairs as dire things happen in the basement below. Hawke really ventures out of his usual zone here but gives this non-descript killer more than one dimension, all the while hiding behind a gross mask. That’s acting.
The Black Phone is certainly not the highest-profile summer offering studios have on display this week at CinemaCon, but I have a feeling it is one that could turn into a major sleeper hit when Universal releases it June 24. It is a highly entertaining and gripping thriller of the best kind, one where the horrors of everyday life are not all that easy to escape.
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