Like many people, I like a good scare. And like any other kid who grew up in the 70s, I knew that all I had to do at the time was turn on the TV news for real-life horror. Serial killers were rampant, and child killers were their own sub-genre of nightmares. So setting a modern film in this gritty 70s era, where kids are snatched off the street by a creeper in a van? You’ve certainly got my attention!
Finney (Mason Thames) is a kid at that age where he is bound to grow 4 inches over the summer. He’s an athlete, but not a big guy; he’s smart, but kind of quiet. He tolerates daily beatings and harassment by the middle school bullies. At home, Finney’s life isn’t much better. Even though he has a smart-ass awesome younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), he has to endure tiptoeing around their drunkard dad (Jeremy Davies) who is raising them alone. (Trigger warning: An early scene has dad violently and repeatedly whipping Gwen with his belt… yikes.)
But there is trouble brewing in town, too. Teenage boys have been disappearing, apparently abducted, and maybe much worse. Flyers of missing boys appear on telephone poles around town; tough boys, nerdy boys, jock boys. When Finney’s friend Robin, disappears, it’s awful, but when Finney himself falls into the trap of “The Grabber,” with his black van and matching balloons, the horror truly begins.
The Black Phone, for the most part, is set in one dingy, cement basement. There is a mattress on the floor and a disconnected phone on the wall. When The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) comes in the room, he always wears a grotesque devilish mask with a distorted grin (or frown) depending on his mood. He doesn’t ask anything of Finney, but seems to be testing him. When Finney is alone, he checks out the room, trying to figure out a way to escape. When the disconnected phone on the wall suddenly rings, he isn’t the only one who jumps.
The gist of The Black Phone is that dead boys, the previous victims of The Grabber, are reaching out to Finney to try to help him, to keep him from being the next kid slaughtered. It’s a good twist, and there are at least two absolutely solid scares that practically had me hit the ceiling. As time starts to run out for Finney (at The Grabber gets impatient for the kid to fall into one of his traps), Finney’s sister Gwen is meanwhile helping the police with cues from her prophetic dreams–a skill that was the curse of their late mother. It’s all quite Stephen King-ish, really, and that’s no accident: The Black Phone happens to be based on a short story by King’s son Joe Hill.
The young actors are excellent, particularly Mason Thames as Finney. Literally carrying every scene of the film, he has to convince us that he is shy, smart, enterprising, and more than a little terrified. He is really good.
But where the film is weak is with The Grabber himself. Hawke seems a bit miscast, trying to make an impression as a villain without use of his most expressive feature–his face. We know this can be done memorably (hello, Darth Vader), but he leans on lots of flamboyant gestures combined with being shrieky and shrill to deep and growly. (Because what we need is another killer of boys who is flamboyant.) And not to sound like the Actor’s Studio, but what is the bad guy’s motivation? Just being scary in a 70s horror movie way? While much of the story is very effective and tense, any horror fan knows that a villain makes a movie. If The Grabber himself were more than a caricature of a psycho killer, The Black Phone otherwise would have all the ingredients that could have made it a top-notch thriller.