Synopsis: After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone
Director: Scott Derrickson
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In much the same way I implored you a few weeks back to see Top Gun: Maverick in theaters because I felt it was vital to watch it on the biggest screen possible to get the full effect, I’m going to strongly suggest another trip to your local venue for The Black Phone. Before my screening this past balmy summer night, I had forgotten how nice it was to be at a scare-packed movie with an attentive, engaged audience. Over 100 minutes, seats were jumped out of, popcorn tubs spilled in fright, & shrieks of all tones & timbre were heard. You can’t get that same experience at home, and some of the enjoyment derived from this adaptation of a short story comes directly from that audience energy.
Not that the film doesn’t stand up quite well on its own. It’s a sophisticated scare that director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has in store for you, far removed from the cruddy slice and dice fare rushed to the screen or the lower-budget releases from the same producer, Blumhouse. No, The Black Phone has been treated with great care, and you can see how that level of attention yields a much better result in the end. Now, you have a movie that has you inching ever forward in your seat as you nibble at your nails, only to be jolted back with one good fright after another.
Set in 1978, it opens on a baseball game on a bright day in April. Young Finney (Mason Thames, quite impressive) desperately wants to strike out the player at bat, mostly to impress a classmate on the sidelines. The game’s fate is inconsequential because not everyone makes it home that day, the result of The Grabber, the name the children give to the individual abducting young boys in the area over the following months. Flashing forward to October, a handful of other adolescent boys have vanished into thin air. The police have little to go on, save for a new tip: Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw, American Sniper) dreams about the crimes with details she can’t possibly know.
Living with their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies, Twister) after the death of their mother, the siblings hold onto each other for sanity. Still, when Finney is taken suddenly by a masked madman, Gwen is left on her own to probe her visions for clues that will lead her to her brother. Meanwhile, Finney is trapped inside the basement of a psychotic (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) whose calm demeanor gives way to violent rages that echo his terrifying shrouded face. His hopes of escape seem futile…until an assumed broken black phone on the wall starts to ring with someone on the other line that has an important message for the trapped lad.
The previews and marketing for The Black Phone have given away some of what happens next, but not quite all, so let’s leave the rest of the movie for you to discover. Based on Joe Hill’s short story, it shouldn’t surprise you that Hill is the son of Stephen King because The Black Phone feels like it could have been featured in one of King’s short story collections through the years. Its period setting with a lack of technology recalls a slower time for information to travel but a more viscerally violent one in the way people deal with problem-solving. Numerous scenes of kids being beaten (by adults or each other) are disturbing to watch, as are the implications you derive from the dominating games Hawke’s twisted character wants to play with the young boy.
It starts to get a little disjointed and messy as it approaches the finale, and once it gets where it’s going, it doesn’t feel like the payoff was worth it, but that realization only comes far later when you’re home, and the adrenaline rush has worn off. Before then, The Black Phone was an easy film to fall into and get scared over. It’s genuinely creepy, primarily due to Derrickson’s classy direction of the material and Hawke’s unnerving and against-type performance. Get to this one in the theaters and check beforehand to see that it’s nearly full – I think you’ll enjoy it more the greater the number of bodies in seats. All the better to scream along with.