From the haunting scares to the ’70s vibe, ‘The Black Phone’ gets everything right
A boy abducted by a serial killer finds help from an unexpected source in the consistently chilling period piece.
From the movie-opening shot of a can of Coors being cracked open to the well-timed use of period-piece pop hits to backyard toy rocket launchers to the convenience stores with pinball machines to the two-tone raglan baseball T-shirts worn by the kids to the brown-and-gold color schemes in the working-class suburban homes, “The Black Phone” has such a great 1978 vibe — and yet it’s almost as if we’re watching a visualization of someone in present day telling the story of that long-ago time when a serial killer known as “The Grabber” was snatching boys off the street.
After all, in the same year the Grabber was hiding behind his masks while terrorizing a North Denver neighborhood, one Michael Myers had escaped a sanitarium, donned a white mask and begun a killing spree in the town of Haddonfield, Illinois, and we were just a couple of years away from a masked murderer named Jason Voorhees slicing and dicing his way through Camp Crystal Lake in New Jersey. It was a bloody golden era for masked killers across America. Yeesh!
Based on a short story from Joe Hill and directed with tone-perfect style by Scott Derrickson, who wrote the screen adaptation with his “Doctor Strange” writing partner C. Robert Cargill, “The Black Phone” is a hauntingly effective, perfectly paced, consistently chilling and wickedly warped horror gem. Certain elements might remind you of the aforementioned “Halloween,” as well as “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Stranger Things,” “Room,” “Saw” and Stephen King’s “It” (maybe not a huge surprise, given Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son), but “The Black Phone” carves out its own identity as one of the better cinematic nightmares in recent years. It will scare you AND it will haunt you, as the best entries in this genre always do.
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, based on a short story by Joe Hill. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated R (for violence, bloody images, language and some drug use). Opens Thursday in local theaters.
When we meet 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), he’s on the pitcher’s mound and throwing some pretty impressive heat, but he gives up the game-winning home run to an opponent who tells him in the post-game handshake line (“Good game, good game, good game”) that his arm is “mint,” and that’s such a perfect late 1970s term.
Turns out that while Finney plays baseball, he’s not so much an alpha jock as an outcast underdog — a science nerd who is tormented by the requisite trio of bullies, can barely make eye contact with his classmate crush and clings to his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) at home, where their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies) might explode at them at any moment and bring out the belt. (It doesn’t help that Gwen has inherited their mother’s “gift” for seeing the future in her dreams — a condition that drove their mom to suicide.) “One day you’re going to have to stand up for yourself,” says one of Finney’s more sympathetic classmates — and that day is coming sooner than Finney expects, and in a much more horrific way than he could ever imagine.
For the past year or so, a shadowy figure in a black van with “ABRACADABRA ENTERTAINMENT SUPPLIES” etched on the side has been pulling up out of nowhere and snatching teenage boys, with a few stray black balloons wafting out of the van, and that’s about the only clue the cops have. (As is usually the case in horror films, law enforcement is slow to grasp the magnitude of the situation and usually three steps behind the killer.)
That “The Grabber,” as he’s come to be known, is played by Ethan Hawke is an especially astute bit of casting, as this eminently likable actor gets the rare opportunity to play pure evil — and even though Hawke’s face is fully or partially hidden behind an interchangeable mask that can be switched out to reflect insane menace, deep sadness or grinning malevolence, he puts such an appropriately over-the-top and unique spin on his line deliveries that it feels as if HIS expressions are actually changing.
When Finney is snatched off the street by the Grabber and locked in a dungeon-like basement with a gross toilet and a dirty mattress, we can feel the hopelessness of this situation. Finney tells himself: I’m never getting out of here.
But wait. There’s an old, black, rotary phone on the wall, and even though it hasn’t worked for years, Finney starts getting calls from previous victims of the Grabber, some of whom have forgotten their names but are still trying to help him escape. (The visualizations of these murdered victims are rendered in shocking and blood-curdling ways.) Meanwhile, the possibly clairvoyant Gwen is desperately trying to find her brother while bargaining with Jesus in a way that is both hilarious and deeply touching. Everyone should have a little sister who is a force like Gwen.
With the grainy cinematography and the period-piece production design keeping that 1970s vibe humming, “The Black Phone” slow-builds to its pulse-pounding final act, some of it choreographed to the instrumental classic “On the Run” from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” and there’s a sequence that’s an obvious and great tribute to one of the best thrillers of all time and we’ll leave it at that.
Ethan Hawke makes for a memorable villain, but the film is carried by two young actors who turn in remarkably authentic performances: Mason Thames as the resourceful Finney, and Madeleine McGraw as the fantastically foul-mouthed and fiercely determined Gwen, a half-pint who just might be more formidable than all the grown-ups in this town, including that bleepin’ Grabber.