‘The Black Phone’ is a dialed-in horror flick

“The Black Phone” (2022) – A parent’s worst nightmare.

A kid’s worst nightmare too.

Director Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone” is a child abduction movie, and this 102-minute horror film will sometimes snatch your breath.  Rather than portray the story as a straight-up thriller with a sinister creep’s evident dangers versus a young hero’s tangible devices for escape, somewhere in the second act, “The Black Phone” departs from pragmatism and enters other startling spaces. 

Derrickson and writer Robert Cargill’s screenplay dramatically turns and feels like a Stephen King adaptation, especially to this critic, who spent several formative years reading the man’s novels and short-story collections. 

In what ways?  Specifically in two places, but you’ll have to see the movie to discover them.  Needless to say, after watching and enjoying this effective chiller, it is no surprise that Derrickson’s film is based on Joe Hill’s short story of the same name.

Joe is King’s son, and not unlike writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s (“Possessor” (2020)) similar talents with his famous father, David, Mr. Hill seems like a chip off the old horror-genre block.  (Note, I haven’t read Joe’s work, but I should probably get started!)

Not to be mistaken for an ordinary block of tired cinematic ideas, “The Black Phone” is a taut, enthralling thriller.  The deliberate narrative leads us down a perilous path in the tightest of confines: a bleak basement with concrete slabs resembling a third-world prison and one black rotary phone fastened to a wall.  An industrial steel door is the only viable exit. 

Finney (Mason Thames)

Departing 2022, “The Black Phone” introduces 1978 North Denver and an all-American setting in middle-class suburbia.  Kids ride their bikes without helmets or chaperones.  A schoolyard fight doesn’t end until the winning pugilist mashes the losing one to a bloody pulp.  Little League baseball players don’t have year-round coaching, club teams, or seemingly any parental interest in wins and losses.

Children are left to their own devices, and they can turn to The Eagles or Foghat and live “Life in the Fast Lane” or take a “Slow Ride”.  In most circumstances, they “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, however, these days – Oct. 1978 – just about everyone in the Mile High City feels on edge because an unknown menace named The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) snatches youngsters off the street, and these poor souls disappear for good.  

The featured kid (maybe a sixth or seventh grader), Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), could be described as a poor soul before his kidnapping.  A triad of classmates regularly bullies Finney, and his alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) frequently pours grief onto him and our protagonist’s sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).  Derrickson and the three actors effectively establish the Shaw family’s troubling home life during the first act. 

Dear Old Dad requires constant silence when he’s not yelling like a maniac and beating his kids.  Davies – who runs a respectable track record of playing unstable characters – and McGraw carry a horrifically uncomfortable scene.  After the aforementioned confrontation, we immediately realize that Finney and Gwen rely on one another, and Derrickson introduces an ironic comparison.  The film’s true villain is The Grabber, a man who works in shadows and hushed surroundings, but Terrence (Davies) is a menacing scoundrel at home and displays his ugly emotional warts by shouting at the top of his lungs and swinging a leather belt.  

Finney (Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw)

Unfortunately, life seizes Finney from a troubled house and into a life-or-death dilemma.  The Grabber chooses him.  For most of the 102-minute runtime, the young man attempts to cope with incarceration and the seedy, sick realization of a hellish demise.  Although the R-rated “The Black Phone” barely spills any blood, the primary theme triggers anxiety faster than you can say, “No escape!” 

Even though the sound department includes a few cheap jump scares with sudden bullets of haphazard industrial blares, the genre’s familiar audio signatures aren’t needed.  Finney’s anxious self-talk, miserable claustrophobia, and the constant anticipation of peril from a 40 or 50-something sicko deliver all the dramatic tension that the filmmakers need.

Hawke’s The Grabber doesn’t visit Master Shaw every minute, and his sporadic entrances have no warnings.  Each appearance brings a sense of dread, but when he’s not on-screen, we – just like Finney – wonder about his whereabouts. Hawke brings a terribly offsetting vibe here, as The Grabber could fly off the handle at any time, but his quiet, creepy cadence almost conveys something worse: the constant threat of violence.  He’s wearing a mask, which resembles a twisted cross between a face covering from “The Purge” series and a gargoyle.  This bizarre sight serves a practical purpose because The Purge-Gargoyle disguise hides Hawke’s face, and quite frankly, witnessing Ethan tormenting Finney on-screen might not suspend our disbelief.  Because the film hides the actor’s identity, even though we know Mr. Hawke is playing the prime antagonist, it immediately forges a sense of wonder of who or what is underneath.  His Hollywood star power doesn’t become a distraction. 

The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and Finney (Thames)

There are minimal disruptions to the quick-hitting flow of this tick-tock thriller.  Gwen and the police desperately search for Finney, and since we have a straightforward premise here, Derrickson has plenty of space to develop these characters.  Both are bright kiddos who don’t make foolish decisions.  Finney’s humility makes him accessible to the audience, and his level head and ingenuity will lead him to a successful career in engineering or the military if he can survive this ordeal.  Meanwhile, Madeleine’s Gwen is a wonder of a kid sister.  She will mix it up with fisticuffs, chew out adults, and lean on – sometimes literally – her big brother.  Gwen displays relentless worry and determination, and we sympathize with her desperation. 

Add groovy 1970s tunes and fashion statements and a world without smartphones, and “The Black Phone” is a dialed-in horror flick, save for an utterly implausible plot hole that could fit a fleet of 1974 GTOs.  However, if you ignore this point (or simply accept it), just about everything else rings true!

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson

Written by:  Scott Derrickson and Roberg Cargill, based on Joe Hill’s short story

Starring:  Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell, and Troy Rudeseal

Runtime:  102 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: Universal Pictures

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