The Black Phone

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

At first, it seems like an idyllic opening for a coming-of-age tale set in 1978. Finney Blake (Mason Thames) is a shy but talented pitcher who nearly strikes out Bruce (Tristan Pravong), a rival baseball star. The 13-year-old has a crush on Donna (Rebecca Clarke), a girl who serendipitously adores him right back. Finney’s also got a small but protective buddy named Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), a capable fighter.

Unfortunately, Finney and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are beset with severe problems. Their mother committed suicide even before our story begins. Their father (Jeremy Davies) awash in grief, is reduced to an abusive alcoholic. A group of bullies led by Moose (J. Gaven Wilde) torments Finney. It gets worse. The small town — a suburb of Denver, Colorado — is plagued with a series of kidnappings. An evil murderer is snatching juveniles in a dark van while wearing harlequin-like masks and brandishing black balloons. The media has dubbed this individual “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke). Gwen harbors latent psychic abilities and experiences prescient dreams about the case. Her knowledge of unreleased details worries two detectives (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal). Missing youngsters start to accumulate, including both Bruce and Robin. Then one day, Finney encounters the Grabber and becomes his sixth abduction.

1970s period piece detail adds to the creepy atmospherics. Most of the film takes place in a darkened basement. The room is soundproof, with only a bed, a toilet, and a black phone mounted on the wall to break up the monotony of the space. Finney is alone, but other kids once occupied this area. Children in peril movies can be rather egregious, particularly ones threatening sinister developments too horrifying to recount here. It’s an alarming situation, and I braced myself for the worst. Luckily the mood veers towards optimism. Finney and his sister Gwen form a commendable sibling bond. They truly support one another. She never ceases to lose focus on her brother’s predicament.

It is so refreshing to see a horror movie where paranormal forces are actually working on the side of good. Ten years ago, writer-director Scott Derrickson gave us the low-budgeted but highly effective Sinister. Now he’s back to flip the script with co-writer C. Robert Cargill and star Ethan Hawke. The creative trio delivers another nifty Blumhouse production. The Black Phone flirts with a hackneyed formula. Menacing clowns, spunky kids, and inept adults were highly derivative ideas when Stephen King published It back in 1986. You’ll find all of that here. Yet the screenplay subverts expectations. We come to realize “The Grabber” is guilty of murder. Our mind recalls infamous serial killers Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer. But like them — he’s still a flesh and blood human. After he’s been abducted, Finney unexpectedly receives supernatural help from a mysterious source. There is a positive foundation that elevates the saga. Finney and his sister Gwen form a compelling team even when they are apart. They give us hope even during the film’s unsavory tone. The maturity of their performances unexpectedly raises the production into something uplifting.


4 Responses to “The Black Phone”

  1. I liked the direction of this horror movie. Like you said, paranormal assistance working towards hope was a nice change. Young actors were very convincing and good. Ethan’s character had just enough creepiness to make this very eerie. 3 1/2 ⭐️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, “The Grabber” was particularly disturbing because an audience brings their knowledge of what that person is capable of. I appreciated the restraint the film showed.


  2. I gotta say, I was quite surprised at how moving the brother/sister bond was in this. Sure, maybe a slight few script issues you gotta get past (know it’s the 70’s, but one person couldn’t accurately ID and tail someone making abductions seemingly always in broad daylight?), but Derrickson is a strong director and the movie gets the best out of the three stars it needs to be great for it to all come together.

    Liked by 1 person

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