Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 23rd, 2022
The Black Phone (Scott Derrickson, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
The literary apple does not fall far from the tree. Author Joe Hill (aka Joseph Hillstrom King), the son of famed horror master Stephen King and wife Tabitha (also a noted writer), has followed in his parents’ footsteps with some success of his own, seeing many of his works not only published but adapted to visual media. Now comes a new such adaptation, of his 2004 short story “The Black Phone,” an eponymous film from director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange). Starring Ethan Hawke (The Northman), Jeremy Davies (The House That Jack Built), James Ransone (What We Found), and a number of excellent child actors, the movie, about murderous abductions and the supernatural retribution they provoke, both disturbs and engages, in equal measure. I won’t say it’s a good time, but it sure is an engrossing one.
The time is 1978, the place Denver. Mason Thames plays tween boy Finney, who when we first meet him is pitching at a Little League game where he gives up a home run (after throwing two good strikes) to Bruce Yamada (Tristan Pravong), cool kid about town and solid slugger. Bruce’s big score ends the game, and that’s that, though at least he complements Finney’s arm on the way out. Cut to Bruce biking the streets in the days that follow and an ominous fade to black as a shadowy figure emerges from a blurry van in the background.
We flash forward a number of months, and learn by the by that Bruce was taken, though life has gone on. Finney and sister Gwen (an amazing Madeleine McGraw, The Mandela Effect) have bigger problems on their hands. Dad (Davies) is a violent alcoholic, bereft at the loss (by suicide) of their mother and determined to take his pain out on his kids. It doesn’t help that Gwen has some psychic abilities, apparently able to dream about things that have happened, will or could happen, and to see clues that could solve mysteries. So did Mom, and that sets Dad off.
More immediately, she is the physically tougher of the siblings, defending Finney when bullies attack. Normally, his friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) would step in, only he—following scenes that establish his role and his character—has also been kidnapped. Among his final words to Finney were his insistence that the boy would soon, someday, have to learn to stand up for himself. That test is now, for next up on the victim list is Finney himself.
He’s snatched by “The Grabber” (Hawke), a masked man in a magician’s van who uses black balloons to disguise his crimes. He throws Finney in a basement where, among other scattered props, hangs the titular phone, attached to the wall but disconnected. Eventually, it will prove a conduit to the great beyond, whence come calls from previous abductees (among them Bruce and Robin). As time runs out, they offer advice on how to defeat the killer. Whether Finney can listen and learn is another matter.
The Black Phone is a tense ride, for sure, photographed in appropriately somber tones and filled with one taut moment after another. Despite the paranormal moments and Hawke’s series of creepy masks, it’s more crime procedural than horror flick and works quite well for what it is. Still, there’s a constant sense of dread and unpleasantness that makes the movie occasionally oppressive, the children in constant danger from the adults in the room or even each other. Not much is done with the 1970s setting beyond the production design, though that seems well realized. Overall, it more than holds our attention, even if we often want to look away.