[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
In the works of Stephen King, such mundane terrors as abusive parents, sadistic bullies, and the specter of alcoholism are often just as threatening as the supernatural forces lurking in the shadows. With The Black Phone, however, his son, Joe Hill, pursues this theme to its logical conclusion. Rather than ravenous vampires, shapeshifting eldritch abominations, or… uh, “shit weasels,” his central antagonist is a relatively ordinary serial killer. Unlike The Shining’s homicidal apparitions, meanwhile, this film’s ghosts are outright benevolent, doing their best to help their murderer’s latest prospective victim escape from captivity and avoid their grisly fate.
The screenplay, penned by director Scott Derrickson and his frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill, is a rare treat in the current climate of megabudget blockbusters and maximalist spectacle: a straightforward, tightly structured, economical thriller. Not a single detail is wasted; every conversation between our young hero and his otherworldly companions contributes to his character development, gradually building up to a deliciously cathartic climax. Indeed, it could be taught alongside Edgar Wright’s scripts in a master class on the delicate art of setup and payoff—and I don't make that assertion lightly.
The Black Phone doesn’t revolutionize the genre or reinvent the formula, but it doesn’t really need to; like the classic horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, it simply aspires to tell an entertaining scary story.