Horror films are much more than just mindless jump scares and scary monsters. They can help explore the darkest aspects of human nature and act as a medium for transformation be it of societal norms or be an allegory for personal development. Recently, horror has experienced a resurgence with films such as The VVitch, The Lighthouse, Midsommar and many others. Does 2022’s The Black Phone continue this resurgence?
In 1978 Denver, a child kidnapper known as “The Grabber” (played by Ethan Hawke) is on the loose. Meanwhile, Finney (played by Mason Thames) is an unconfident school boy who’s frequently bullied by his peers. One day, his sister Gwen (played by Madeleine McGraw) dreams of The Grabber’s kidnappings and tells the police, warranting a search for the predator. Finney is kidnapped himself and locked in a cellar where The Grabber would occasionally bring him food all while trying to escape with the help of the past victims which he can communicate with through a broken, black corded phone.
When I first saw the trailer, I simply thought this movie was going to be a run of the mill horror film. What I did not expect was a terrifying coming of age thriller. A lot of films struggle to have believable child actors. Although I initially was not impressed with the child acting and even thought that some scenes were unrealistic, like Gwen talking back to the cops while swearing at them. However, upon getting the full picture, that both Finney and Gwen are raised by an abusive alcoholic dad, it made sense. Mason Thames as Finney really pulled through especially when he was kidnapped by The Grabber. My moments from Thames are the subtle changes in his facial expressions whenever he’s in a tense situation. He can switch from calm to intense to scared in a blink of an eye. Mason Thames is truly talented and has the potential to be one of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
But besides Thames, this is perhaps one of my favorite Ethan Hawke performances I’ve seen! Hawke seamlessly conveys a horrifying and psychopathic image of a child kidnapper, effortlessly combining sadism and a morbid sense of childlike fun. His performance as The Grabber is very reminiscent to Bill Skaargard’s Pennywise and Heath Ledger’s Joker, from the use of balloons to his unpredictable and violent nature. Throughout the film, I was anticipating his arrival and when it happened, I was not disappointed. Ethan Hawke knocks it out of the park in every film or TV series he’s in, from Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy to Marvel’s Moon Knight. He is so terrifying as The Grabber, I kept thinking he should be cast as a DC Comics villain, be it Hugo Strange or Mr. Freeze!
While on the surface, The Black Phone might seem like a survival horror story, however it is so much more than that. Much like Robert Eggers’ The VVitch, The Black Phone is a commentary on evolution. The only difference is, while the former is about freedom from societal expectations and patriarchal oppression, the latter is a coming-of-age story. Finney is portrayed as a meek kid who doesn’t stand up for either himself or others. When his sister is abused by their dad or when he is being bullied by a group of boys at school, he either merely observes or refuses to fight back. His kidnapping at the hands of The Grabber is the catalyst to him developing self-confidence and standing up for himself.
Oftentimes, horror films rely too much on having a villain that is a nigh-invincible monster or zombie. However, I feel that detracts from the essence of what makes us scared. While monsters appear scary, I feel that a more realistic threat makes a horror film not only more relatable, but also more terrifying; which is why The Grabber feels so horrifying as a villain. Even though there are supernatural elements, the villain is based solely in reality, making for not only every parent’s but every child’s worst nightmare.
Speaking of said supernatural elements, I appreciate how sparingly they are used and instead allow the story and its elements to take the lead, whether it's surrounding the titular Black Phone or Gwen’s dreams. Both surprisingly interweave flawlessly throughout the narrative, adding intrigue, suspense and surprise as the film progresses. This makes for some of the most satisfying setups and payoffs to come out this year!
We may not get all of our questions answered by the end of the film, such as the case with The Grabber’s motivations and backstory remaining mysterious throughout. It may not be spelled out explicitly, but it is implied The Grabber was abused as a child. Considering how he kidnaps and murders children, it would be safe to assume he has unresolved trauma from his adolescence and is trying to take back what was his in some way. The Grabber remains evil and mysterious, but this implied trauma really adds to the broken element of his psyche whenever we see him interact with his victims.
Overall, The Black Phone is not only a successful horror film that continues the horror genre’s resurgence, but is also one of the biggest surprises of 2022. With stellar performances from both the child actors and Ethan Hawke as the sinister villain, The Black Phone is a creepy, yet imaginative coming-of-age story that I will never forget and a horror film that I will keep watching time and time again.
Co-Written By: Noah Kloss