Review: ‘The Black Phone’ (a perfect thriller)

Never talk to strangers.

In the Fall of 1978, a Colorado town is terrorized by a kidnapper dubbed by residents as “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke). Every child already knows the legend, including Finny (Mason Thames), a thirteen-year old pitcher for his little league team who enjoys launching model rockets when not avoiding the school bullies. His younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is the tougher of the two, coming to the attention of the local police for touting unreleased details of the kidnappings… a revelation earning her a whipping from her widower father (Jeremy Davies) because Gwen “takes after” her late mother. Soon afterward, Finny becomes the latest boy to fall prey to the kidnapper, awakening in a soundproof room behind a locked door, but why is the black phone on the wall still able to ring with its line cut?

Directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) from his own screenplay based on a short story from Joe Hill, this Blumhouse production is part period piece, part ghost story, and all thriller. From an idyllic small-town start devolving into opening credits invoking the Frank Darabont-produced first season of “The Walking Dead,” the film echoes the dread that trailers have been teasing for almost two years. The closest thing this movie resembles is the 2017 IT part one film, with kids being terrorized and taken, especially while even the smarter adults were completely ineffective. While the expectations for this film are high — being held back for a summer release — The Black Phone is neither a reboot nor a proven IP other than the pedigree of those bringing it to the big screen. Can it become a smash or sleeper hit for the season, or will film-going audiences opt to watch dinosaurs and/or jet fighters again?

It’s a rare thing when every moment onscreen is absolutely necessary, but The Black Phone is that exception, literally edited to the bone. Nothing is wasted, hinting at more than viewers are shown while still feeling instantly complete; every character is well-acted, every scene is important and detailed, and foreshadowing comes perfectly full circle. Layer upon layer of detail builds into a satisfying conclusion that’ll have audiences biting their fingernails on the edge of their seats one moment and cheering the next. Bits of humor exist as much-needed pressure-release valves exactly when viewers could use one, but the story is so engaging that frights revealed in the trailer still won’t be seen coming. The Black Phone lingers long after the lights come up in the best possible way.

Ethan Hawke plays The Grabber as a “villain with a capital V,” immersing himself in self-delusion as he plans his game and leaves his mandatory clues; while never clarified, his modus operandi and backstory are seeded with off-the-cuff dialog such as, “That phone hasn’t worked since I was a kid,” suggesting he grew up there. McGraw’s Gwen is instantly likable, a good kid who takes no crap from anyone, giving as good as she gets. Each of the prior victims are personalities unto themselves, but details here would spoil the film to mention except in passing, but they are essential to make the story work. Thames has to carry the production as Finny, taking his own power from the mistakes and encouragement of others. While the lair of the Grabber contains a ton of obvious escape room elements, the intent behind each one is organic in context within the story framework.

If there’s one unsatisfying element to the film, it’s the lack of comeuppance for Finny and Gwen’s abusive dad, downing his sorrows in alcohol and taking the loss of his wife out on their kids using a belt, a sad staple of the 1970s. Of the things shown on screen rather than being hinted at, the camera doesn’t look away from this one, but it’s necessary for a later bonding moment. While there’s no denouement showing this being addressed specifically, it’s both easy to assume and comforting to believe that it will never happen again — for “reasons.”

The Black Phone is rated R for violence, bloody images, language, some drug use, and a black van with no windows.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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