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Answer ‘The Black Phone’ if you dare

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It’s always a thrill when those whose work you admire have new projects coming. It’s a chance to experience again the quality that these individuals and/or entities bring to the table. And when they start combining forces, you cross your fingers that the resultant increase will be exponential rather than geometric.

Turns out, we’re all in luck when it comes to the new film “The Black Phone.”

First of all, it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill. Source material: check. Next, the film is directed by Scott Derrickson, from a script he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill. Filmmakers: check. And the whole thing is brought to you by Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse. Production team: check.

Add it all up and you’re looking at a project that appears, at least on paper, to be poised to give you that exponentially expansive quality. That said, movies aren’t just what’s on paper – in the end, the execution has to be there. Is it?

Oh brother, you better believe it.

“The Black Phone” is a marvelous work of throwback horror, a film that blends a ‘70s B-movie vibe with a modern sensibility. That combination results in a wonderfully spooky creepfest, a film that uses elements of the supernatural to evoke scares that remain firmly rooted in reality. It’s rare for a horror movie to pull off “less is more” while also finding moments to go big; this one makes it look easy. It is unsettling, unrelenting … and unforgettable.

In 1978, the suburbs of Denver are under a looming shadow. A mysterious figure – known colloquially as “The Grabber” – has been abducting children, leaving behind grieving families and casting a pall over the entire community.

Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) live here with their abusive alcoholic father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Finney and Gwen have a loving relationship, supporting one another as they try to avoid their father’s wrath. Finney’s a smart, sensitive kid – the kind of target that bullies love. He struggles to stand up for himself, even with the encouragement of his friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), the toughest kid in school.

Things get complicated when an acquaintance of Finney’s named Bruce (Tristan Pravong) is taken by the Grabber. See, Gwen sometimes has deeply strange and confusing dreams – dreams that are often true – and she dreamt about Bruce being taken, a fact she shared with Bruce’s sister before he was kidnapped. Gwen gets called to the principal’s office, where she’s questioned by Detectives Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Miller (Troy Rudeseal); apparently, her dream included details about the kidnapping that weren’t available to the public.

When Terrence finds out, he punishes Gwen severely. Finney and Gwen’s deceased mother also had prophetic dreams that drove her to madness and, ultimately, an untimely death. More abductions follow, leaving the community in a paranoid uproar.

Then, sadly, it is Finney’s turn.

He wakes up to find himself in a basement cell, the latest captive of the Grabber (Ethan Hawke). The Grabber constantly wears intricately detailed masks and engages in vague conversation, refusing to reveal his motivations or his plans. Finney is in a room with nothing but a mattress on the floor – and a black phone hanging on the wall, its wires cut. A despairing Finney resigns himself to his fate.

And then … the phone rings.

On the other end are voices, voices with faded memories and unclear origins, all offering Finney advice as to how he might be able to avoid his untimely end. With the help of these voices, he might stand a chance against the malevolence of the Grabber, but he’s walking a knife’s edge – one wrong move and it will be the end of him.

On the outside, Gwen strives desperately to dream of her brother, seeking to help him in the only way she knows how. But it’s a race against time, and even if she does dream of him, who will believe her?

Too often, horror films lean too heavily on their supernatural elements, leaving little room for the elements of realism that generate deep scares. That doesn’t happen with “The Black Phone” – those elements, while key, aren’t a crutch. Instead, they serve to accentuate the bone-deep terror that comes from circumstances that ring all too true. The element of possibility is an underrated aspect of top-tier horror; it’s in full effect here.

The foundational structure of the film is strong, but the devil is in the details. Derrickson and company have created an outstanding period piece, one whose setting is well-realized on multiple levels. It looks and feels like the ‘70s on a macro level – the production design is on point – but also on a micro level, capturing the feeling of sinister atmosphere that marked the best horror films of the era. Again – a throwback in the best way.

(It’s worth noting that this movie is surprisingly funny, with exquisitely-timed instances of humor that serve to both deflate and elevate the tension. You probably don’t expect multiple laugh-out-loud moments in a horror movie centered around child abduction, but here we are.)

The performances are excellent across the board. Young Mason Thames is asked to do a LOT of heavy lifting in this film; he’s alone on screen for significant stretches. Yet his ability to hold our attention belies his youth; his fear and his fortitude are on full display throughout. McGraw is just as good as Gwen, her elliptical orbit moving her nearer and further from the action periodically, but never losing the connection. Also, she might be the best young curser I’ve seen in years – kid has a way with salty language. The other kids are all, well … kids. And I mean that as a compliment. They all feel genuine.

And of course, there’s Ethan Hawke, who is just creepy as hell. He’s masked throughout, yet still manages to inspire terror, using his voice and (especially) his eyes to bring forth the madness. There aren’t many actors out there who could make this role work, but Hawke does so with seasoned ease.

“The Black Phone” is a rarity, a film that would be right at home as part of a drive-in double feature while also feeling thoroughly modern. It’s a combination of old and new school that largely mines the best of both worlds, creating something new, yet still hauntingly familiar.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 27 June 2022 10:52

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