Joe Hill inherited his father Stephen King’s ability to blend the scary and supernatural with everyday adolescent fears. The Black Phone, based on Hill’s short story, takes place in 1978 when Mr. King was writing his masterpieces. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) and his foul mouthed and tough cookie little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) have their Daddy issues. Played by Jeremy Davies, Terrence is a widower who drinks himself to sleep and can turn aggressive on a dime. He seems haunted by his wife’s death. She had dreams that were psychic visions. These abilities are inherited by Gwen and Terrence wants her to avoid mom’s nightmarish end. Father and daughter have an abusive encounter where McGraw’s utterly convincing terror provides the scariest scene in a film about a child serial killer.
That serial killer is The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), who masquerades as a magician. In the Denver suburb where the action takes place, the villain has snatched five young boys already. Finney becomes the sixth. Captive in a dank basement, a disconnected black phone is mounted on the wall. The Grabber claims it doesn’t work, but it operates as a mouthpiece for past victims. Between the rotary device and Gwen’s insights, Finney hopes to escape with those methods of assistance.
The source material was a brisk 30 pages and The Black Phone does sometime struggle with the considerable expansion. You’re best off not thinking about logic too much. This is a fairly simple concept greatly accentuated by two very effective performances by Thames and McGraw. Hawke, who starred in director Scott Derrickson’s satisfying Sinister, provides some creepy support but it’s the kids who bring the most shine to this dark material. This filmmaker knows how to generate suspense and he gets the combination of paranormal and horrific activities right enough of the time.
*** (out of four)