Thursday, June 23, 2022

Tribeca ’22: The Black Phone

You can still find out-of-service pay phones left installed in the walls of old school diners, decrepit bus stations, and past-their-prime school buildings that seem to offer the promise of ghostly communication they cannot possibly fulfill. This serial killer assumes the disconnected phone in his basement dungeon is just like that, but his latest abductee will receive supernatural calls on it from previous victims in Scott Derrickson’s Blumhouse-produced The Black Phone, which opens tomorrow nationwide, after screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

He is called the Grabber for obvious reasons. He uses balloons and magic tricks to lure kids off the street, but even after grabbing them, he never lets them see his face unmasked. Unfortunately, Finney Shaw will be his next victim, following his friend Robin Arellano and his friendly softball rival, Bruce Yamada. Arellano was more formidable taking on bullies at school, but Shaw is the first to draw the Grabber’s blood during the abduction.

Thanks to the ghostly calls he receives on the supposedly kaput phone in the Grabber’s sound-proofed basement, Shaw also avoids all the mistakes his past victims made. They also offer advice regarding potential avenues for escape, but he will have to work quickly. So far, Shaw’s kidnapping has been so unsatisfying for the Grabber, he is starting to lose patience with his latest victim. Of course, the clueless cops are looking for him, but so is his younger sister Gwen. She has a bit of the shine, but she can’t necessarily summon it whenever she wants. Instead, it comes irregularly in dreams.

Based on the Joe Hill short story,
Black Phone features an abusive father, similar to the many examples found in the works of his own dad, Stephen King. Critics of the psychoanalytic school can make of that what they will, if they dare. At least Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s adapted screenplay explains the Shaw siblings’ father acts they way he does, because their late mother was driven crazy by her clairvoyant gift/curse.

Black Phone is insidiously effective (if you will) because the young cast is so compelling. Yes, the always reliable Ethan Hawke is all kinds of creepy as the Grabber, but the sinister masks are also a big part of his screen presence. However, Mason Thames really holds the audience’s attention and sympathy as the somewhat nebbish Shaw. When he is not on-screen, Madeleine McGraw steals numerous scenes and scores the film’s only laughs as his sister Gwen. You do not often see such an endearing and cooperative young brother-sister relationship in films—but it is done really well in Black Phone.

Miguel Cazarez Mora and Tristan Pravong also add a great deal playing Arellano and Yamada. Honestly, as a youth-led horror film,
Black Phone works even better than the first part of Andy Muschietti’s It. Thematically, it is somewhat akin to The Boy Behind the Door, but its handling of the child abduction is not as offputtingly exploitative.

Black Phone
is a strong rebound for Blumhouse, after their just-okay, not-particularly-necessary Firestarter remake. It is moody, suspenseful, and nicely recreates the milieu of late-1970s Denver, CO. It is also smartly written and tightly executed. Highly recommended for fans of horror and serial killer thrillers, The Black Phone opens tomorrow (6/24) in New York, including the AMC Lincoln Square.