You never forget a good sleepover movie. It used to be that you could head over to your local video store, browse the aisles for a while and walk out with two or three movies your parents rented for you and your friends. With that sort of supervision, anything was up for grabs, so long as whomever was watching over you approved. This week, director Scott Derrickson and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill are adding their own contribution to this storied practice, as The Black Phone finally hits premium VOD.
While the video store is not exactly thriving at the moment, streaming and VOD are just as helpful to such pursuits. Though the cinematic adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story of the same name is rated R, from my subjective viewpoint it’s not a particularly hard one. The Black Phone does tell a story that involves some gore, as well as the disturbing subject matters of murder, physical abuse and child abduction, but it uses those components to tell the story properly.
This isn’t a Saw-level torture porn shockfest, as Scott Derrickson has crafted a narrative that wades through a no-holds barred story focused on adolescents. Once again, Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill seem to have set out to make a perfect horror film without aiming for that R-rating. It just so happens that, much like they did with their cult horror hit Sinister, they happened to run into that territory according to MPAA guidelines.
Which is a shame, because outside of that arbitrary rating, The Black Phone seems absolutely fine to show to a teenage audience. However, since Sinister is now streaming for Peacock Premium subscribers, you can always use that movie as a theoretical test drive to see if The Black Phone is right for your kids.
Watching Finney (Mason Thames) communicate with the spirits of The Grabber's (Ethan Hawke) previous victims could also serve as a metaphor for all of the hard times that await young people in any age. The Black Phone may be a supernatural tale, but Joe Hill takes after his father in the source material, as he uses the fantastical to parallel the perils of youth. It’s a prime example of what horror fans know as “gateway horror,” a.k.a. those movies that help easy younger fans into the spooky stuff.
With villains like Hannibal Lecter and The Joker inspiring Scott Derrickson’s take on The Grabber, The Black Phone is even more of a prime gateway movie that’ll lead to some of the harder stuff, like The Silence of the Lambs. True, this is a bit harder than your typical gateway horror film like Ghostbusters or The Monster Squad. However, in the modern day, a movie like The Black Phone is kind of along those lines of content; especially when franchise like Resident Evil are easily accessible on the nearest video game console or Netflix streaming device.
One of the greatest anchors that helps The Black Phone play towards a hypothetically younger audience is its inclusion of age-appropriate leads, and rather impressive ones at that. Mason Thames’ Finney runs the gamut of strength, vulnerability and tender friendship, making for a compelling lead to follow. Also, Madeline McGraw’s performance as his on-screen sister, Gwen, is both hysterical and engrossing. Younger audiences will get a kick out of The Black Phone showing actors roughly their age using R-rated language, and to the proper comedic effect.
None of the young cast alienates the audience with behavior that’s too precocious or profanity that’s excessive. If anything, the strongest factor about The Black Phone’s total package is that it’s a grounded, supernatural horror film. Yes, the main conceit is Finney trying to best The Grabber through the advice of the dead, but it’s never overblown or sensationalized. Time and time again, we’ve seen concepts like this told in stories with younger children, and it’s that fine borderline between innocence and skepticism, or wonder and horror, that we allow ourselves to believe such a story can exist.
I’m afraid to even use this term, but you can think of The Black Phone as an Amblin-adjacent horror movie that you can show your kids. Ethan Hawke actually terrified his young Black Phone co-stars, and the realism of such terror could even scare younger audience members who are jaded by the media they’re already allowed to partake in.
I’m about to make a very subjective statement, but as far as I’m concerned, The Black Phone is the type of movie I’d have rented with my parents' permission as a teen. For a film that roots itself in horrific crimes and the voices of the dead, it’s actually a pretty cozy watch. The familiarity of this sort of horror tale is comforting because these are the sorts of ghastly stories we all grew up hearing at one point or another.
Don't just take my word for it though. The trailer to The Black Phone sells the horror portion of this experience pretty thoroughly, as you'll see below:
All The Black Phone does is give the world another fine example of storytelling that identifies with young people. Showing them that they can conquer their fears with confidence and the right advice, it’s a terrifying tale that delivers a powerful message. Seeing as this is the movie that both Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill left Doctor Strange 2 to make, it’s even more fitting that these once-MCU storytellers are still thinking with blockbuster brains that know how to aim for the heart.
The Black Phone is still in theaters, but is also currently available to rent on PVOD. So if you’re inclined to potentially let the tweens or teens in your life watch this movie, you can always watch it first in that 48 hour rental period. Trust me when I say that if you let your kids and their friends watch this one, they might feel like they’re getting away with partaking in a secret, almost forbidden thrill. Which, of course, is one of the reasons we watch horror movies at a young age; as a rite of passage at the movies.
CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.
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