A kidnapped teenager is aided by the ghosts of his captor’s previous victims in The Black Phone, a well-crafted and surprisingly straightforward horror film from director Scott Derrickson based on the novel by Joe Hill. While Derrickson is known for his over-the-top scares in nerve-wracking films like Sinister, however, this one refreshingly dials things back a few notches.
Set in the late 1970s, The Black Phone opens in a small suburban town peppered with missing posters for local children. Dubbed by local media as The Grabber, a mystery man has been abducting local teens off the street and into a dark van in broad daylight, leaving behind assorted balloons and no trace of his victims.
Teenage Finney (Mason Thames), meanwhile, faces some more pressing threats: his father (Jeremy Davies) is a beastly drunk who physically assaults Finney and his precocious younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) for the smallest of transgressions, and schoolyard bullies viciously batter him with more of the same.
As if things couldn’t get any worse for Finney, he also happens to be the next victim of The Grabber, played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke’s face is obscured from view throughout the entire film, often by a series of creepy masks designed by Tom Savini. Despite being the film’s biggest star, Hawke is never recognizable throughout The Black Phone, imbuing his abductor with a strangely familiar yet downright chilling menace.
Throughout much of The Black Phone, Finney finds himself in The Grabber’s basement, a barren concrete room with a barred window too high to reach and a black telephone on the wall. The phone isn’t connected to anything, but it rings anyway. On the other side, Finney hears the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, who advise him on how to deal with his captor… and potentially escape.
The Black Phone is at its most evocative in the abductor’s basement, as Finney slowly begins to put together a plan with the help of his ghostly friends. Meanwhile, a pair of detectives (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal) inefficiently comb the neighborhood, an amateur sleuth (James Ransone) tries to pinpoint the Grabber’s location, and Gwen attempts to hone her burgeoning psychic powers to help find her missing brother.
With its young protagonist, real-world killer, and supernatural overtones, The Black Phone feels like it might have come from a Stephen King short story; that’s no surprise, as it was adapted from a novel by King’s son, Joe Hill. But director Derrickson takes a refreshingly low-key approach to the storytelling, and the resulting film is effectively unsettling while (mostly) avoiding the over-the-top jump scares of the recent adaptation of King’s similarly-themed It.
As a horror film or crime thriller, The Black Phone might often feel like it’s running through the motions; there’s not much here that most audiences haven’t seen before. But beneath the surface, there’s some genuine (if obvious) thematic parallels; in dealing with his captor, Finney learns to develop the kind of courage he needs to handle the real threats, his father and his peers.
In addition to Hawke’s menacing behind-the-mask portrayal of the abductor, The Black Phone’s greatest strength is in its precise depiction of both a specific time and place (late 1970s suburbia) as well as a time in young lives when real-world nightmares begin to intrude on childhood fantasy.