“The Black Phone” did not surprise me much, but I was entertained nonetheless. As your average seasoned moviegoer, I clearly discerned what I was going to get from this effective genre piece, and it did not exceed my expectation much on the whole, but it still could engage me enough thanks to its creepy mood and solid storytelling. Yes, it did not take much time for me to guess where the story and characters are going, but the movie did a skillful job of making me care about what it is being at stake in the story, and I do appreciate that.
The movie is based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, who is incidentally the son of Stephen King. Although I have not read Hill’s short story yet, I have to point out that the movie is often reminiscent of his father’s several novels such as “It”, and it even has a very twisted villain who terrorizes a neighborhood as frequently kidnapping boys. This evil dude usually uses black balloons whenever he strikes down upon his target, and you may wonder whether he is related to Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
Anyway, the story, which is set in Denver, Colorado in 1978, is mainly about Finney (Mason Thames), a young adolescent boy who has been often bullied inside and outside his home. Inside his home, he and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) have to be very cautious due to their alcoholic widower father who can be quite abusive to them, and he is also frequently tormented by several mean kids at his school. Compared to these two terrible issues of his, a series of kidnapping incidents in his neighborhood do not look that grim to him, though he worries about what actually happened to those vanished boys just like many others in the neighborhood.
It is clear that there is a serial kidnapper on the loose, and he is even nicknamed “the Grabber”, but, unfortunately, the local police do not still have any substantial clue to help tracking down this diabolical criminal. As a matter of fact, a couple of detectives later approach to Gwen just because she happened to dream about the Grabber at times, and that says a lot about how desperate their situation really is.
Meanwhile, the Grabber continues his reign of terror over the neighborhood. Not long after the Grabber took away one of his close friends, Finney comes upon a stranger while he is going to back to his home alone by himself, and, what do you know, this stranger turns out to be the Grabber, who swiftly kidnaps Finney while no one is around them. When Finney subsequently wakes up, he finds himself trapped inside a basement cell belonging to the Grabber, and the Grabber soon comes down to the basement for having some morbidly sadistic fun.
Once he is left alone in the basement cell again, Finney tries his best for finding any chance for escape, but there comes a little surprise as he becomes more frustrated and depressed after failing to find anything helpful in the basement cell. There is a little black phone which is supposed to be disconnected, and it suddenly rings to his surprise more than once. He hesitantly answers the phone later, and then he finds himself talking with one of those boys kidnapped and then murdered by the Grabber.
After that, one dead boy after another approaches to Finney via the black phone, and the story becomes more interesting as Finney gradually gets some chances for escape via these dead boys. Some of them tell him about certain things hidden here and there in the room, and one of them even warns him about how cruelly the Grabber is going to punish him for being, well, bad.
While our young hero keeps trying with more caution, the movie also focuses on Gwen, whose dreams turn out to be sort of clairvoyant and may actually help her finding where her brother is. As her father does not want to hear anything about her dreams for understandable personal reasons, Gwen decides to be more active than before, but, to her frustration, she still cannot have her exceptional talent under control.
In the meantime, the movie attempts to jolt us more than once via sudden shock and awe as expected, but they are effectively delivered without disrupting mood or narrative pacing at least. Director/co-writer/co-producer Scott Derrickson, who has mainly been known for several horror films including “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005) and “Sinister” (2012), did a competent job of accumulating a palpably creepy sense of dread and suspense on the screen, and I particularly like a tense scene where our young hero must be really, really, really quiet in front of another possible chance for escape.
The main cast members of the movie are convincing in their respective parts. While Mason Thames diligently carries the film, Ethan Hawke effortlessly exudes menacing creepiness although his face is usually masked throughout the film, and Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, and James Ransone are also fine as several other crucial characters in the story.
In conclusion, “The Black Phone” is a standard genre mix which does not transcend its genre elements but ably generates some dark fun from combining them. It is indeed familiar in many aspects, but it is done fairly well with enough skill and personality at least, and that is surely enough for recommendation in my trivial opinion.