Review | ‘The Black Phone’ is a ghost story with one great twist
The bad guy here is known simply as the Grabber, a child-snatching psychopath of the sort found in urban legend and, unfortunately, on the front pages of newspapers. He drives a black van filled with black balloons, calls himself a part-time magician and entices young boys into chatting with him on the sidewalk with the offer of a magic trick — before knocking them out with some sort of aerosol spray and spiriting them away. As the movie gets underway, he’s been in business for a while. There are posters of missing children all over this Denver suburb, and everyone knows their names.
But the real magic trick is what Derrickson does with the source material. “The Black Phone” — which centers on the Grabber’s latest victim, middle-schooler Finney Blake (Mason Thames), and his efforts to escape — makes us believe in the inexplicable. To wit: that Finney, while imprisoned in a soundproof bunker beneath the Grabber’s home, somehow discovers a rip, of sorts, in the veil between this world and the spirit realm, via a broken telephone whose severed wires should, at least according to the laws of electricity, not produce a dial tone. Whom Finney communicates with, and what he learns from them, are the pleasures slowly parceled out by this puzzle film.
Of course, the Grabber makes for a suitable foil to Finney’s ingenuity. As played by Ethan Hawke, who collaborated with Derrickson before in “Sinister,” he’s a perfectly prosaic monster. His intentions for Finney and his previous victims are plainly nauseating, though the film wisely doesn’t dwell on the clinical details or the underlying pathology. It’s an icky premise at best, and Hawke, whose full face is almost always hidden, doesn’t really need the variety of terrifying masks he wears, which make him look like the dad-bod version of a carved demon. He’s scary enough all by himself.
This isn’t exactly “Room,” the multi-Oscar-nominated 2015 thriller that won Brie Larson an Academy Award for best actress as the victim of a similar kidnapping. Nor is it a take on the friendly-ghost theme of “Casper,” although there are parallels. It’s its own thing — and that includes a backdrop of family trauma, in which Finney’s younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) possesses clairvoyant abilities of a special sort. They’re a legacy of the children’s late mother, whose precognitive dreaming led her to a tragic end. As a result, Finney and Gwen’s father is an abusive drunk, but that minor storyline — unlike a similar one in the equally excellent horror film “Antlers” — is a narrative dead end.
“The Black Phone” nicely evokes its era, in a way that, unlike “Stranger Things,” never feels showy. This film belongs to Thames and McGraw, who ground it in authenticity.
There’s nothing unheard of here: a bad guy, a haunted house, a hero. But it’s what “The Black Phone” does with those simple parts that sparks a spooky connection.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, bloody images, coarse language and some drug use. 102 minutes.