'The Black Phone' review: Don't hang up on this effective chiller
Courtesy of Universal
Returning to his horror roots after a brief dabble in the Marvel sandbox, director Scott Derrickson quickly reminds audiences why 2012’s “Sinister” was no fluke. Once again working under the frugal reins of Blumhouse, “The Black Phone” expands on a popular Joe Hill story in ingenious methods. Unlike Hill’s previous cinematic adaptation “Horns,” “The Black Phone” finds its niche within the nostalgic/throwback horror genre “Stranger Things” has since redefined. An effective, but wobbly little chiller that incorporates an odd paranormal framing device while asking audiences to look the other way at very obvious and otherwise silly plot holes, Derrickson amps up the tension thanks to Ethan Hawke who is absolutely devilish playing a serial killer nicknamed the Grabber in Denver, Colorado circa 1978.
But it’s not entirely about the sinister Grabber as frequent Derrickson collaborator/co-writer C. Robert Cargill turns Hill’s story into a deeper meditation on family, trauma, and survival. From that angle, “The Black Phone” belongs to Mason Thames playing Finney, a local pitcher for the school's baseball team who also can’t stick up for himself when the bullies come pounding. His foul mouthed, street-smart little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw - a true star in the making) has more grit and attitude, and isn’t afraid to throw a punch (or rock) if the situation demands it. They both live under the watchful eye of their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davis) who can’t seem to understand his children let alone raise them. You’d think he’d be more careful letting Gwen and Finney roam around without supervision while the Grabber is kidnapping children in his big-black van. The seventies man.
Acting as a cross between the Boogeyman and King’s own Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the Grabber lures his adolescent victims with funny games and magic tricks. There’s no motive to dissect other than Hawke’s Grabber is a sick individual who kidnaps teenage boys for no other reason than to brutally muder them. He never shows his face, shielding an identity “The Black Phone” doesn’t seem keen on exploring, but he’s never encountered anyone quite as resourceful as Finney either, who, after getting snatched in broad daylight, seems to know the traps before they're even set. That’s because Finney, thanks to what I’d assume are hereditary traits, can communicate with the Grabber’s past victims via an old rotary telephone in the basement where he’s being held captive. Consider it an insider’s perspective as Finney chats with several entities who clue him into the Grabber’s twisted mind games. It’s a stretch of a premise that almost took me out of the movie, but Ethan Hawke’s diabolical performance would always rope me back in.
The slick ‘70s aesthetic and soft grayish colors help set the vibe Derrickson has no problem leaning into, utilizing classic tunes like “Free Ride” and “Fox on the Run” to keep things upbeat before the black van comes rolling around to cause havoc. The two handers between Hawke and Thames ratchet the tension to near skin-crawling heights, including an escape attempt that’ll make you never want to use a combination lock again. Derrickson and Cargill enjoy subverting conventions, delivering some terrifying jump scares, but the inclusion of a secondary character named Max (James Ransone from “It Chapter Two”) which might be too spoilery to reveal is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Still, “The Black Phone” runs on precision and the build-up to the climatic finale is better than anticipated. If ever there was a time to answer the call, don’t hang up on this creative and stylish ride.
THE BLACK PHONE is now playing in theaters.