Multi-genre The Black Phone keeps momentum with suspense

Summary: More suspense than horror, the Black Phone is a well-crafted coming of age story about an abducted teen finding his place and identity.

One of the sleeper hits of 2022 is The Black Phone. Filmed on a budget of about $18 million, The Black Phone has earned $101 million at the box office. Given the movie is slated to stream on the Peacock Network, the horror / thriller / coming of age movie may well end up among the most profitable of the year. 

The Black Phone is more suspense than horror

The Black Phone is somewhat deceptively billed as a horror film. In fact, the movie’s tone is much closer to a crime thriller with horror elements. Writer-director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Dr. Strange) has crafted a well executed thriller (based on a short story of the same title by Joe Hill). It also combines mystical elements with a coming of age story about an abducted teen finding his place and identity. 

Set in 1978 near Denver, Colorado, Finney (Mason Thames) is a teenager who is bullied and tormented at school. He has a strong bond with his willful sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). Gwen also experiences dreams that appear to foretell bad deeds. 

Finney and Gwen live in an abusive household. Their alcoholic father (Jeremy  Davies) has failed to come to terms with their mother’s suicide. Their father attributes her suicide to their mother’s inability to cope with her dreams. His fear is that Gwen will follow the same course. That possibility terrifies him. He reacts with a belt to Gwen’s backside whenever she mentions the dreams, but it’s clear retributive violence is typical in their household.

Dreams become clues

When Finney and Gwen’s schoolmates start to go missing, Gwen’s dreams seem to become terrifyingly real. When Finney (inevitably) turns up missing, Gwen is helpless, caught between her abusive father and obviously skeptical police detectives.

Meanwhile, Finney is held captive in a soundproof room. The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) toys with him. When Finney begins hearing the voices of past victims through an supposedly inoperative black wall phone, he begins a roller coaster of hope, frustrations, and hopelessness.

But the ending doesn’t depend on Finney alone. Gwen plays a critical role although her real value is not fully revealed until the final moments of the movie. 

Christian Faith

Surprisingly, The Black Phone has a Christian spiritual theme. Gwen, it turns out, has been praying to Jesus to give her guidance with her dreams. The young girl, however, has a rather sophisticated view of the Holy Spirit, which she struggles with as she tries to find her brother before it’s two late. In short, both main characters are on their own path in the film. 

These Christian themes are explored more fully in an article at The Beacon.

While the two arcs come together neatly in the plot, the spiritual evolution of Gwen is underplayed. Her struggle with faith and doubt is critical to her character’s evolution through the film. The movie, however, doesn’t end with the spiritual closure that audiences might expect. 

A well-crafted, multi-genre film

The Black Phone is a well crafted, coherent multi-genre film, making it ambitious within the horror genre. Derickson puts enough twists in the plot to keep audiences guessing until the very end. With a small cast with clearly identifiable characters working within a well defined plot, the movie never loses momentum. 

Don’t forget to check out all my movie reviews!

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series ( has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).