Director Scott Derrickson and actor Ethan Hawke reteam after reaching the heights of horror in 2012’s “Sinister” for “The Black Phone,” another twisted tale with a decidedly supernatural spin. Based on a short story by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), one may feel too much of a paternal pull when it comes to “Phone’s” plot.
The film’s set in 1978 and revolves around grade-school aged brother and sister Finn (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeline McGraw). While their neighborhood is being rocked by a rash of child abductions from a serial psychopath the kids have nicknamed “The Grabber” (Hawke), Gwen starts to have dreams about the missing kids. After seeing black balloons in one of her dreams, the police drop by the school to see Gwen- seems black balloons are actually the Grabber’s calling card that the police have kept secret from the press. Clearly clairvoyant, it’s something her abusive, alcoholic Dad (Jeremy Davies) would like buried along with the presumable fate of the missing kids and Gwen suffers the strap to assure her future silence.
All’s fine until Finn falls into the Grabber’s hands and gets locked into a concrete-walled, soundproof basement. Disguised in a devil’s mask adorned with a rictus grin, the Grabber calmly tells Finn he’ll be fine and then leaves Finn alone to contemplate his fate. On the basement wall, Finn sees a black phone whose wire has been severed. When the phone rings regardless, Finn picks up the receiver only to hear the Grabber’s previous victims clue Finn in on his dilemma and give advice on how Finn can escape.
“Phone” has pretty good hooks to get you interested but, if you’re a Stephen King fan, dead people speaking through disconnected phones and clairvoyant kids aren’t anything new. What is new is the way “Phone’s” presented, and that’s Derrickson’s direction. Just as he had in “Sinister,” Derrickson uses shadows and sound to his benefit. Particularly in scenes when the dead children appear out of nowhere and speak in static-based voices, Derrickson delivers a creepy, otherworldly ominous vibe.
Acting’s another plus in “Phone’s favor. While Hawke’s surprisingly sedate for a psycho (which I guess is supposed to make him scarier) with a soft voice reminiscent of actor Crispin Glover, McGraw as Gwen really delivers the goods- tormented by her ESP talent, she’s still strong and determined enough to find her brother Finn. It’s also good seeing Jeremy Davies again: even in his Dad role, Davies’ trademark frenetic energy hasn’t missed a beat since “Saving Private Ryan” and “Solaris.”
While the story may leave Stephen King fans too familiar with the tricks to be terrified, “Phone’s” suited to Derrickson’s directing style and that makes the movie a decent-enough diversion.