Producers: Jason Blum, C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson Director: Scott Derrickson Screenplay: Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill Cast: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Miguel Cazarez Mora, E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal, Tristan Pravong, Jacob Moran, Brady Hepner, Spencer Fitzgerald, Banks Repeta and Rebecca Clarke Distributor: Universal
Grimly efficient but more unsettling than scary, writer-director Scott Derrickson’s return to his old horror stomping ground—interrupted by his dalliance with the MCU in “Doctor Strange”— with this serial-killer tale, based on a story from “20th Century Ghosts,” the 2007 collection by Joe Hill (the song of Stephen King). One can certainly detect traces his father’s work here—“It” in particular—but there are also elements that might make you think of real-life events, most notably the gruesome career of John Wayne Gacy.
Or perhaps it’s just coincidental that the story is set in 1978, the same year Gacy was finally arrested—or unmasked, if you will. The setting is a lower middle-class Denver suburb where thirteen-year old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) lives with his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) and their widowed father (Jeremy Davies), an embittered alcoholic who can switch on a dime from concerned parent to abusive drunk.
As we see in the opening scene, Finney’s a pretty good Little League pitcher, but Bruce (Tristan Pravong) hits a home run off him to win the game for the opposing team. For some reason Finney is targeted by school bully Buzz (Spencer Fitzgerald) and his minions; he’s saved from a beating only by the intervention of Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), a classmate he helps with schoolwork with whom he shares a love of horror movies. Robin’s an expert at martial arts, and warns Buzz that if he fools with Finney, he’ll regret it.
But there’s a more fearsome evil afoot: the town is being terrorized by a creepy fellow who’s been nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). He’s abducting young boys; three have already disappeared, and now Bruce and Robin join them. Gwen, who’s gifted like her late mother with the ability to have dreams that are sometimes prophetic, sees fragments of the abductions—visions of a black van and black balloons—and tells police detectives Barnes and Miller (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal) about them, but they’re skeptical. And her father is infuriated by her dabbling in things that remind him of his dead wife.
The situation becomes more desperate when Finney becomes The Grabber’s latest victim. Tossed onto a raggedy mattress in a soundproofed basement cell, he’s confronted by his captor, wearing a grotesquely demonic mask, who promises not to harm him in smarmy tones no one could believe. Finney’s situation seems hopeless. But people on the outside are working to find him: Gwen, who desperately tries to use her dream powers to intuit useful information about his whereabouts, and, though at first it seems like a distraction, a coke-snorting goofball named Max (James Ransone), who wants to help the cops with the investigation.
Then there’s the titular phone hanging on the wall in Finney’s cell. The Grabber tells him it doesn’t function, but it has the odd habit of ringing. Hearing only static on the line at first, Finney assumes it will be of no help. But ghostly voices eventually break through the noise, and they turn out to be those of previous victims Griffin (Banks Repeta), Billy (Jacob Moran), Vance (Brady Hepner), Bruce and Robin. Some only speak, others actually appear to Finney, and a few even recall their kidnappings in flashback. Each—especially Robin—gives him a suggestion about how he might escape that may not be sufficient on its own but, as becomes clear in the final confrontation, contributes to a plan Finney haphazardly constructs—though, to be honest, the connections aren’t shown in real time and can be deduced only afterward by viewers. Meanwhile Gwen’s dreams are producing important clues as well.
Though its elements of suspense thriller and supernatural shocker don’t ideally mesh, “The Black Phone” works fairly effectively as a slow-burning chiller for several reasons. A principal one is the outstanding performances of Thames and McGraw: Thames offers a remarkably subtle turn, convincingly capturing Finney’s shifting notes of hope, despair, fear, anger and resignation, while McGraw steals her scenes with the girl’s sauciness and determination. Among the other youngsters, Mora is the standout, though Rebecca Clarke is pleasantly feisty as the classmate designed to become Finney’s lab partner—and more.
The adults are more variable. Hawke is a fine actor, but while he endows the villain with a fey, sinister vibe, he’s hamstrung by the fact that the character is almost always masked, and while the facial apparatus, with its changing parts, is certainly nasty-looking, it lessens his expressive options, except vocally. Davies opts for exaggeration, as does Ransone, the former for dramatic impact and the latter for humorous effect; it might have been better if Derrickson had reined them in a bit. Most everyone else is a mite flat.
The technical team depicts the grungy late seventies atmosphere nicely on a relatively modest budget, with the period detail in Patti Podesta’s production design and Amy Andrews’ costumes nicely caught by Brett Jutkiewicz’s atmospheric cinematography. And while editor Frédéric Thoraval can’t entirely paper over the inherent implausibility of the plot twists, or goose up a film whose moodiness is only occasionally punctuated by bursts of visceral action, he helps to ensure that the picture doesn’t fall apart in logical absurdity. Mark Korven’s score, meanwhile, supports the tone Derrickson is after without becoming overpowering.
“The Black Phone” hardly breaks new ground in the genre, but it’s reasonably clever and generates a few serious jump-cut shudders. It would also seem not to invite a sequel—though since it’s a Blumhouse production, if it racks up enough ticket sales they’ll probably find a way to make one.