There’s been a flood of throwback tween terror on movie screens and streaming services for the past few years: from “Stranger Things” to the newer “It” iterations, it’s been a banner era for floppy-haired pubescents in ringer tees.
Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone” fits neatly into the subgenre, but this incredibly dark kiddie kidnap horror film just hits different with a hard-R rating, going for the jugular with a surprising extremity of violence, plus a tone that wobbles between the bleak and the buffoonish.
Adapted from a short story by Joe Hill (the son of Stephen King), “The Black Phone” sees “Doctor Strange” director Derrickson reunite with his “Sinister” co-writer C. Robert Cargill, and star Ethan Hawke, under the Blumhouse production banner, known for their low-budget, high-return horror flicks.
“Sinister” co-star (and “It Chapter Two” star) James Ransone also joins up with the gang for a film that’s nostalgic not just in setting, but with regard to our fears as well. Perhaps it’s trying to show the dark side of nostalgia — things weren’t just classic rock tunes and absentee parenting back in the ‘70s, there were also real threats, not just supernatural ones.
Mason Thames stars as Finney Blake, a kid just trying to make it through middle school in 1978 Denver. His dad (Jeremy Davies) is a drunk, and the bullies are brutal (the beatdowns on screen are astonishingly bloody). Plus, all of his friends keep disappearing at the hands of a kidnapper known as “The Grabber,” who leaves black balloons at the scene of his crimes.
It’s only a matter of time before the vulnerable loner Finney gets snatched too, and considering neighborhood stud Bruce (Tristan Pravong), and tough kid Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) didn’t escape the Grabber, Finney figures he’s a goner.
Much of “The Black Phone” takes place in the drab basement where Finney is kept by the terrifyingly masked Grabber (Hawke), who occasionally shows up to thoroughly creep him out and make vaguely menacing threats.
On the wall is a black rotary phone with a cut cord, but it keeps ringing, and Finney keeps answering. Through the static, voices come through, and Finney realizes these are the voices of the boys who have disappeared before him, coaching him through this experience, giving him tips and tricks and guidance to survive the Grabber’s clutches, if not for him, for them.
Thames delivers a searingly authentic performance as the young Finney, and when it’s just him alone in the basement with ghosts, “The Black Phone” is at its best: suspenseful, emotional and filled with jump scares.
Above ground, things are a bit shakier, the characters more two-dimensional, the performances much, much bigger. Davies plays the drunk, abusive dad to the hilt, and Madeleine McGraw is a bit over-the-top as Finney’s overly precocious, potty-mouthed psychic sister Gwen. Ransone, as a coke-addled armchair detective brings a level of humor that is at odds with Finney’s rather heroic journey in the basement.
Desaturated color and grainy, dreamlike sections bring a vintage feel to the film’s style, and even the fear of a child kidnapper feels appropriately retro. But the period setting doesn’t seem to be trying to comment on current events — it’s almost as if the film is nostalgic for simpler times when the greatest worry for a child was a creepy guy with a van and a sound-proofed basement, not the larger existential threats of climate change and mass shootings.
At least it seems like there’s a way out of the Grabber’s clutches, and the larger message of “The Black Phone” is that perseverance, standing up to the biggest bully of them all. It’s a positively quaint moral at the center of a shockingly violent and scary movie.