Ethan Hawke rings in the nightmares in unnerving horror throwback The Black Phone

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·3 min read
Ethan Hawke rings in the nightmares in unnerving horror throwback The Black Phone
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The call is coming from inside the house. The twist and the gist of The Black Phone is that those calls are actually good news for the boy trapped in a madman's basement — and maybe his best chance to survive director Scott Derrickson's blunt but brutally effective little slice of supernatural horror, in theaters today.

Phone relies on landlines and several other throwback tropes because it can: The movie opens, not too unlike Dazed and Confused, on a small-town Little League game, Edgar Winters' "Free Ride" choogling on the soundtrack. It's the early 1970s, and kids in stiff-denimed bell bottoms and stripey knitwear know only an analog world of shag-rug living rooms, suburban bike rides, and benign neglect. (Helicopter parenting, clearly, is a concept still several decades away.)

(from left) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.
(from left) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

Universal

Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) have more latitude than most, largely because their mother is dead and their dad (Justified's Jeremy Davies) is a dedicated low-grade alcoholic. But they also have to reckon with his erratic moods and tantrums; when Finney's chewing makes too much noise or Gwen dares to mention the strange premonitions in her dreams, they might be met by seething outbursts or worse, the belt.

Finney also has to contend with crushes and school bullies, though the biggest bogeyman is someone his classmates just call "The Grabber"; Missing posters flutter on telephone poles and in shop windows for all the boys he's said to have stolen away. When the man in the black van finally comes, it happens in a moment: A strange, giggling figure (Ethan Hawke, his face daubed in chalky white stage paint like a degenerate mime), grabs Finney and shoves him in before he has a chance to scream.

Once Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister) gets Finney in the basement, more paranormal aspects take over (when the old disconnected phone on the wall rings, it's coming from a place no long-distance plan can reach) though Hawke's mere malevolent presence is often the freakiest thing on screen. His nose and mouth concealed by a series of leering, lumpen masks and his motives unclear, the actor swings between breezy benevolence and sputtering rage; there's a game he wants to play, except the rules aren't written anywhere.

Derrickson penned the script with his Doctor Strange cowriter C. Robert Cargill from a short story by Joe Hill, and the slim source material tends to feel padded out accordingly. Basic plot mechanics often don't add up in the details, but high-voltage jump scares abound, and several baroquely composed frames (a goat-horned Hawke stripped to the waist with a whip in his wand, waiting patiently in a kitchen chair; a scattering of black balloons across the sky) are genuine nightmare fodder. Thames, with his fox face and watchful eyes, feels more like a real kid than Hollywood usually allows, and even as goofier gaps begin to appear in the storyline, his MacGyver-like resourcefulness give the movie a witty, furious kick: Home Alone for the Blumhouse crowd. Grade: B

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