“The Black Phone” blends two horrifying themes without flinching.
The thriller follows a serial killer who targets kids exclusively. And those lucky enough to avoid his clutches must deal with local bullies who pummel as they please.
And these thugs draw blood.
The relentlessly grim “Black Phone” isn’t for everyone, but it’s as expertly crafted as the best horror movies with only a few eye rolls getting in the way.
Young Finney (Mason Thames) has enough to worry about before a wave of missing children hits his town. Finney’s father alternately drinks and beats his children, and the school’s bullies want to turn Finney’s face into one, big bruise.
Now, his fellow students are disappearing, and the only person with a clue about the case is his sister (Madeleine McGraw) and her oddly prescient dreams. When Finney comes face to face with the man called the Grabber (Ethan Hawke), wearing the creepiest mask since Michael Myers went trick or treating, he’ll need help to escape his clutches.
The black phone in Finney’s makeshift prison, an old school model reflecting the ’70s setting, offers a glimmer of hope. The voices of the Grabber’s past victims guide Finney’s escape plans. But will they be too late to stop the killing spree?
Hawke makes the Grabber much more than a ghoulish, unforgettable mask. He’s alternately caring and cruel, a monster who plays by his own grotesque rules. The actor isn’t physically imposing, so he manufactures fear from his pulpy line readings.
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Thames anchors “The Black Phone,” aided by a smart screenplay that recalls what it’s like to grow up in ’70s America. Yes, the period flourishes are all here, from Finney watching “Emergency!” to pitch-perfect fashions and hairstyles.
They never seem geared to trigger our nostalgia circuits. They flow effortlessly from the Carter-era setting, as does nearly every other element of the film. The high school sequences ring true, while the smaller touches lending the story its human element.
Consider how Finney flinches while watching a hokey horror film on TV.
A modern teen would yawn at the sequence. Finney’s father forbids him from watching R-rated fare like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” though, so even third-rate shocks scare him.
McGraw’s character adds another rewarding layer to the thriller. She prays before bed each night, but when her brother disappears she decries Jesus for letting it happen. Her subplot, allowing her to question God without giving in to Hollywood cynicism, is both rare and welcome.
The rest is up to Thames and Hawke, and director Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange,” “Sinister”) ensures their dynamic is as realistic as the genre allows.
Let’s not forget the lad’s besotted dad (Jeremy Davies), a potential caricature given surprising depth.
FAST FACT: “The Black Phone” started as a 2004 short story by Joe Hill, son of horror maestro Stephen King. The tale is included in Hill’s anthology “20th Century Ghosts.”
“The Black Phone” hinges on a gimmick, the voices trying to prevent the Grabber from killing again. It’s a neat conceit and one ripe for a screenwriter’s overreach. Derrickson’s screenplay, co-written by C. Robert Cargill, restrains itself, dabbling in some supernatural flourishes without compromising the tale’s integrity.
Best of all?
“The Black Phone” takes its time setting the story in motion, but it never feels like a “slow burn” horror template. The story grabs us from the very first moments, adding just enough commercial nods to make it a potential sleeper.
No matter its box office success, “The Black Phone” is another winner in a very strong year for horror.
HiT or Miss: “The Black Phone” is smart, sophisticated and able to blend artistic and commercial impulses for maximum chills.
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