Ethan Hawke leads ’70s crime thriller
"The Black Phone" is a strong spookfest with compelling acting and a genuine sense of menace.
The time and place is 1978 Denver, where teen siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) endure family life with an abusive father (Jeremy Davies) while fending off bullies at school. To make matters worse, children have been disappearing all over the community with an abductor nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) to blame for the disappearances. Finney tries to be careful but is nonetheless taken by The Grabber, waking up in a basement with little except a bare mattress and a disconnected landline.
Ten years ago, writer/director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill teamed up with actor Ethan Hawke to make Sinister, a first-rate supernatural chiller about a true-crime writer who gets too close to the evil that inspires his work. Now the trio reunites for The Black Phone, another horror project that doesn’t quite have Sinister’s supreme scares but proves that the chemistry established from that film was far from a fluke. Based on a short story of the same name from Joe Hill, whose father Stephen King has dabbled in horror fiction from time to time, the movie extrapolates from its conceit with unbearably tense set pieces and an evocative sense of setting.
Hope seems lost, until the phone mysteriously rings early in Finney’s kidnapping, with one of The Grabber’s previous victims on the other line with instructions on how to get out alive.
Bleak, but not without some well-earned moments of levity, The Black Phone fearlessly takes on difficult subject material that lesser horror movies might try to skirt around or avoid entirely. Derrickson sheds the rose-colored glasses that can be associated with this time period and reminds us early and often that life for kids back then could be downright brutal at times. The constant threat of a schoolyard pummeling is enough to make some of the boys overcompensate when it comes time to fight back; an early scene depicts a new kid whaling on a would-be bully far past a reasonable stopping point, just to make a statement. Tragically, this violence is often learned first at home and the broken families of abused or neglected children produce perfect victims for The Grabber.
Though it’s not a traditional tale of empowerment, the thesis of The Black Phone revolves around persevering through cruel circumstances and coming out the other end a stronger person. The premise of someone communicating with the dead and learning from their mistakes is a nice plot device for Finney to keep his head up during his abduction and simply work the problem.
It’s not until the very end that it’s revealed how the bits of advice he gets from The Grabber’s abductees will help Finney escape, but when each piece snaps together, it’s quite satisfying for both the protagonist and us in the audience. In the meantime, Hawke makes a meal of his immensely creepy killer character, sporting a two-piece mask that should be a hit when Halloween rolls around in a few months.
Some of the plot elements that don’t directly involve the game of wits between Finney and The Grabber aren’t quite as strong. The subplot surrounding Gwen’s psychic abilities that she inherited from her mother has some strong character moments, but stretches credulity in the way that it affects the narrative. Put more frankly: I have trouble believing an entire police force would follow the visions of a teen girl as opposed to tracking down The Grabber with more concrete evidence. Elsewhere, it was nice to see Blumhouse regular James Ransone pop up, but his character and his bearing on the plot make way less sense than the myriad supernatural events at play.
Nevertheless, The Black Phone is a strong spookfest with compelling acting and a genuine sense of menace.