The Black Phone is a genre story through and through. A thriller with both fantasy and horror elements, it uses many familiar tricks to create tension. It isn’t flashy or original. It doesn’t attempt to do anything new. It contains aspects somewhat reminiscent of other movies that take place in towns terrorized by a threat that preys on children (anything from It to Prisoners). The story of a boy kidnapped by a child-killer, it has been made about as skillfully as it could have been. Though the twists and turns aren’t necessarily surprising, director/cowriter Scott Derrickson sets them up so well that the tension builds effectively all the way until the satisfying series of payoffs at the end.
Finney is a bullied teenager in Denver in the late 1970s. One day, on the way home from school, he is snatched by the boogeyman who has been killing children in the neighborhood. While the search for this man intensifies, Finney must summon his own inner strength in order to survive long enough to escape.
Adapted from Joe Hill’s 2004 short story of the same name, The Black Phone uses fear of the unknown to generate suspense more than it does violence/gore. The early section of the movie firmly establishes the mood of the town. Finney is bullied at school and he and his younger sister, Gwen, are verbally/physically abused at home by their alcoholic father.
Adults in general are useless. At school, it is another student who saves Finney from bullies, not a teacher. At home, he and Gwen essentially look after themselves. The police are equally clueless. They have no leads until Gwen, who sees visions in her dreams, begins to tell them what she has seen. The kidnapper (dubbed “The Grabber”) seems to have a severe personality issue; sometimes he behaves like a meek child, at others he is a malevolent adult. One of the key themes here is that of children having to assert themselves and work together or be swallowed up by the horror and hopelessness of living in this town.
Derrickson and cowriter C. Robert Cargill do an excellent job of setting up major ideas. In this case, it is building to something very strange that happens once Finney has been captured. There is a phone in his basement cell. The Grabber informs him it hasn’t worked in years. Yet, it rings. When he answers, inexplicably, he hears the voice of one of the other kids who were taken, speaking to him from beyond the grave. They want to help him escape.
It is kind of ingenious how The Black Phone (98 minutes, without the end credits) uses this concept to create tension, as well as to provide substance to Finney’s personal journey. He is played by Mason Thames (in his first movie role) as a smart kid, used to having to put a brave face on his suffering. The most important thing the screenplay does is making him and Gwen sympathetic and likable, so that, when the plot kicks in, it is easy to care about what happens to them. Finney’s attempts to escape (based on the advice of the voices on the phone) are genuinely nerve-wracking. Gwen’s subplot is a little more frustrating because it takes a while to go anywhere and has the weakest payoff. That said, Madeleine McGraw is witty and charming in the role, adding a small dose of welcome humor to the dark proceedings.
The biggest name in the cast is Ethan Hawke, who plays the menacing Grabber. Hawke is a tremendous actor and he certainly doesn’t play a run-of-the-mill villain here. Spending most of his screen-time hidden behind a creepy mask, he is the ultimate unknown. There is no attempt to explain him or give him a backstory. A mysterious, disturbed, basically faceless threat, he seems like a bottomless pit of evil intentions. Most of Hawke’s performance is conveyed using vocal inflections and body language, making it all the more impressive that this entity takes on the presence he does.
The Black Phone was delayed twice this year, but that is not any indication of its quality. Derrickson has created more than a machine designed to thrill; instead, it is a fully thought-out story with a strong sense of tone and period. The way he sets up themes, characters and potential traps is clever and entertaining. This is a really good genre entry.
4 out of 5
Mason Thames as Finney
Madeleine McGraw as Gwen
Ethan Hawke as The Grabber
Jeremy Davies as Terrence
E. Roger Mitchell as Detective Wright
Troy Rudeseal as Detective Miller
James Ransone as Max
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill