The second feature film (after several TV projects) based on the work of horror author Joe Hill, Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone expands on a short story in ways that feel very true to the source material while significantly enhancing its theatrical appeal. It was never in doubt that this would be a more commercial outing than the deeply odd (but effective, in its way) 2013 adaptation Horns, but the picture also dovetails nicely with the current vogue for retro-set genre fare, lightly scratching a nostalgic itch without seeming at all like it’s trying to ride Stranger Things’ coattails. (Or those of Hill’s father and Stranger inspiration, Stephen King, though this story could easily be one of his.)
On a Denver baseball field in 1978 we meet Finney (Mason Thames), a pitcher whose prowess on the diamond (his “arm is mint,” an opponent declares) doesn’t prevent him from being bullied between classes. He’s a jock who walks through life like a dweeb, and even kid sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) sometimes has to come to his rescue. His timidity surely comes from living with a sad-angry, alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who can barely cope with raising two kids on his own — much less in a community whose boys are disappearing, victims of a killer locals call the Grabber.
The Black Phone
A very effective kid-in-peril thriller with a supernatural twist.
Like the boogeyman in King’s It, the Grabber approaches his prey in the garb of a clown. But this is a vastly more straightforward thriller, whose menace has nothing to do with the supernatural. Ethan Hawke’s nameless character, whose motives we’ll never dig into, is simply a man who kidnaps teenage boys while posing as a party entertainer, keeps them locked up for a while, and presumably murders them.
Here, the spirit world is in contact only with the good guys, even if its attempts to help often scare them. Like her absent mother before her, Gwen is troubled by prophetic dreams. Her visions predicted the most recent kidnapping, with a specificity that brought her to the attention of local detectives. (Interacting with them and other authority figures, McGraw steals scenes with foul-mouthed impatience.) But she has no advance warning that Finney will be next.
Derrickson and writing partner C. Robert Cargill set us up to wonder if what’s in store between Finney and the Grabber will be a two-handed psychodrama. Once he has kidnapped Finney and locked him in his large, nearly empty basement, the Grabber is nearly gentle to the boy. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he promises, tacitly suggesting that Finney isn’t like the boys who preceded him. But do those promises come from the man Hawke is playing, or from only one facet of him? The lower half of the Grabber’s mask can be switched out to depict different expressions, from no mouth at all to a Joker-like, menacing grin; each may represent a psychological state distinct from the others, as in M. Night Shyamalan’s abduction thriller Split.
But while the interactions between the two, and Finney’s attempts to find a way out, work well enough to sustain purely reality-based suspense, that’s not all we get. An old rotary phone hangs on the basement wall, and it rings an awful lot for one whose cord hangs severed beneath it. Finney starts getting calls from the spirits of the basement’s previous residents, each of whom has his own piece of advice for the kid. Clearly, none of them escaped, so Finn will have to add his own abilities to their know-how — and maybe benefit from Gwen’s as well — if he hopes to get out.
Even when projecting utter desperation, Thames is spirited enough to keep the film from becoming utterly bleak, and the action aboveground offers some lighthearted moments of hope — from Gwen’s increasingly grouchy interaction with a God who won’t deliver visions on demand, to the involvement in the case of Max (James Ransone), a coked-up wild card whose efforts as a civilian detective may be more valuable than the cops think.
A couple of effective jump-scares aside, the film runs on ticking-clock suspense, knowing that whatever the Grabber says, it’s unlikely Finn will stay in his good graces for very long. The story’s final third works even better than the buildup would suggest, shrugging off some of the atmospherics and, with a clever nod to a classic in the serial-killer genre, focusing all the movie’s energies on a sequence that delivers. Happy or sad, this episode will certainly be immortalized in neighborhood lore, the kind of half-factual legend repeated from one school year to the next, until something more exciting happens.