“Stranger danger” was a marketing term used in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and to a lesser extent today, to educate children about the personal safety. It encouraged youngsters to be wary of people they encountered, not accept any candy, get in cars or accompany anyone they didn’t know. If a stranger says they lost a puppy and would you help find it, the child was encouraged to loudly say “NO” and run away. Popular media reinforced the idea of “stranger danger” with movies about child abduction, sexual abuse and murder perpetrated by a shadowy, usually middle aged, paunchy, sweaty man. The news focused on such cases when they happened and devoted hours of time and space to any missing child story. However, most of the concern over “stranger danger” was misplaced as most crimes against children, from sexual assaults and physical abuse to murder, are carried out by relatives or people they know. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 99% of abducted children are taken by relatives. Still, a custody dispute isn’t nearly as headline grabbing as an unknown menace stalking the streets, preying on innocent children. That’s the main story of “The Black Phone” from “Dr. Strange” director Scott Derrickson and, despite being a “stranger danger” story, it may keep anyone seeing it looking over their shoulder for a black panel van for some time.
It’s 1978 and a child predator dubbed the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has abducted four children in their pre to early teens from the same high school. Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live with their single, alcoholic, abuse father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) in a suburb of Denver. Finney and Gwen know most of the kids including the latest abductee Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who recently protected Finney from some school bullies. Gwen speaks to another abductee’s sister at school, telling her about a dream she had containing information the police hadn’t released to the public. Gwen gets a visit at school from Detectives Wright and Miller (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal), wondering how she knows what she knows, but are disappointed by her answer she saw it in a dream. While walking home from school, Finney is abducted by the Grabber and held in a concrete, soundproofed basement. There’s a black rotary phone on the wall, but the cord has been cut. After a day or so, the phone rings. When Finney answers it, he hears static, but the next call has the voice of a child. It’s one of the Grabber’s victims, trying to give Finney the information he needs to stay alive as long as possible.
“The Black Phone” is based on a short story from Joe Hill in his collection “20th Century Ghosts.” When a short story is adapted for a film, there are can be new bits added to flesh out the narrative to feature length as the inner monologue of the characters is lost in the transition. Some of it can be incorporated into dialog, but it is often set aside. Derrickson, and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, manage to avoid the pitfalls of adaption and provide a taut, tense, sometimes funny story of a deranged child snatcher and his latest abductee.
The biggest kudos need to rain down on the young actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. They make Finney and Gwen likable, relatable and sympathetic for both the horrors of Finney’s abduction and the terrible homelife they have. Each tiptoe around their alcoholic father, attempting to drown his grief over the death of his wife, and the children’s mother, from suicide. He explodes with violent anger if they make too much noise or cause him any other issue. A scene where Gwen is beaten with a belt is painful and uncomfortable to watch as she’s wailing with pain and fear, tears streaming down her face twisted with agony. There’s a fire in Gwen that still burns through the abuse and McGraw allows it to burst to the surface in that scene.
Thames’s Finney is just trying to get through each day without drawing the ire of various bullies. He wants to impress a girl in his class but is usually the victim of some sort of beatdown. Finney is also determined, looking to take care of Gwen and his abusive father. It’s not an easy life, but Finney is doing the best he can. That determination is what aids him in dealing with the Grabber, along with the advice of the disembodied voices over a disconnected phone. His scenes in the basement of his abductor, and at home with dad, are two versions of Hell. One threatens to break him while the other may kill him. With the voices’ help, he might one day walk in the sunshine again. Thames is a very good young actor with a promising future ahead.
Ethan Hawke is super creepy as the Grabber. He constantly wears a mask when in the basement. Sometimes the mouth of the mask is smooth and blank. Other times, it’s in a big frown or a giant smile. His voice is sometimes singsong, sometimes gravelly, but always threatening. No matter what mood his mask or voice is in, Hawke is a perfect fit as the Grabber. We never know when the rage and desire to kill might appear and Hawke’s performance constantly keeps us guessing.
The story is constantly tense, even before Finney is abducted. At home or school, Finney is under threat, his senses heightened for the next attack. The random posters of missing boys spread all over town never lets us forget the danger lurking in the shadows. The police have no clues, and the next boy could be snatched any time. When Finney is taken, the tension is cranked up to the max and we wonder if we’ll ever breathe easily again. This movie is the kind that will give your hands a good workout as you constantly grip your theater seat arms.
“The Black Phone” is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some drug use. There are a couple of school fights that turn very bloody. Gwen is punched in the face in one of them. She also is beaten with a belt by her father. We don’t see her hit, but we hear it. The spirits of the Grabber’s dead victims show signs of injury. Finney is gassed unconscious and punched in the face by the Grabber. A secondary character is shown snorting cocaine in two scenes. Foul language is concentrated in a couple of scenes with Gwen being the most active curser. While praying for more dreams with clues to Finney’s location she says something along the lines of “What the f***, Jesus?!”
If you enjoy tense horror thrillers, I cannot more highly recommend “The Black Phone.” It is a wonder of atmosphere, writing and acting. While there are a few scenes where you may ask if what happens is possible, they aren’t so egregious as to ruin the film. I would recommend gathering as many friends as possible to go together to the theater as “The Black Phone” is an experience best had in a group.
“The Black Phone” gets five enthusiastic stars.
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