It Grabs You, by Bob Connally

27 Jun

Director Scott Derrickson’s most recent film was 2016’s Doctor Strange, a decent (though largely forgettable) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Initially he had been set to return for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness but “creative differences” reared their ugly head and Derrickson was replaced by Sam Raimi. The irony is that it allowed Derrickson to make a thriller on a much smaller budget, akin to much of Raimi’s post-Evil Dead but pre-Spider-Man work. The result is the terrific and completely engaging The Black Phone.

In 1978 suburban Denver, children freely ride their bicycles or walk home from school, but a few have recently gone missing. Near the site of each disappearance a batch of black balloons are spotted with kids claiming that a mysterious man whom they’ve dubbed “the Grabber” has taken another victim. Finney (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) have an incredibly close relationship. Finney is bullied at school, their mother is gone, and their father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) is an alcoholic who verbally and physically abuses them. Finney does have one close friend at school, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who protects him from his tormentors but when Robin becomes the Grabber’s latest victim, Finney’s only refuge is Gwen. 

Gwen meanwhile is questioned by the police for knowing details about the kidnappings that had not been released to the public. Her explanation is that she is seeing these details in her dreams. While the police of course don’t believe her, this may be their best chance to catch the Grabber before he is able to take his next victim. Tragically however, Finney is that next victim with the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) putting him in a near empty basement. There’s a mattress on the floor and a black telephone hooked up to the wall that the Grabber explains hasn’t worked for several years. One of the last things Robin ever said to Finney is that one day he would need to stand up for himself and now Finney is realizing that’s now his only hope to survive.

Based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay is rock solid and gives us believable characters who talk like real people. The relationship between Finney and Gwen is particularly strong and they come across like actual kids instead of “movie” kids. Thames and McGraw each have a handful of credits to their names already and despite their youth, their experience shows here. Their performances really carry the film which is a lot to ask of child actors but they are more than up to the task. Hawke is suitably creepy and the film smartly doesn’t delve too much into his psyche. We really see him through Finney’s eyes and while we are able to make certain inferences about the Grabber’s personality and his motivations, they never become the focus of the film, which would have likely derailed its narrative momentum. Davies, an actor who never seems to be in enough things, is outstanding in his relatively small role. There’s more to Terrence than meets the eye and while there’s no excusing his abuse, the character is given enough depth that we see he’s not purely a monster. Like everyone else in The Black Phone, he’s treated like a real person.

As a director, Derrickson shows absolute command as a storyteller and he does an outstanding job with the 1970’s period detail. It’s not the That ’70s Show version of 1978 with stereotypes thrown into the audience’s face at every turn. It’s all handled in a realistic way and the few songs from the era that are used are far more effective because the film doesn’t bombard us with them. Derrickson’s use of Pink Floyd’s On the Run is a masterstroke and helps create the kind of sequence that I go to the movies for.

More a thriller than a horror film, all of the realistic elements of The Black Phone immerse us into the story in such a way that we can accept its one big ask in terms of its supernatural element. This isn’t the type of movie where anything can happen, so the supernatural aspect of the titular black phone doesn’t guarantee that things will necessarily work out the way we hope they will. There is a sense of incredible tension throughout the film and it puts the audience into Finney’s state of mind. What would we do? It’s simple but highly effective storytelling.

The Black Phone is in theaters now and if you can handle a film about children in peril then this is an easy movie to recommend.

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