In this case, the apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree. The Black Phone is based on a story by Joe Hill - Stephen King’s son - and bears quite a few similarities to some of Dad’s work.
Taking place in 1978, the story involves the disappearances of several kids in a Colorado suburb at the hands of “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke), who drives around in a balloon-filled black van to abduct his victims. Throughout the film, his face is partially or completely hidden by a series of creepy metallic-looking masks (and it’s a safe bet you’ll see them for sale at Spirit Halloween this year). Hawke turns in a great performance, relying mostly on his eyes and voice to creep us out.
Like some of King’s most beloved stories (and the films adapted from them), the protagonists are children…siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who live with an abusive, alcoholic father. Finney is timid and bullied in school, while Gwen is a little more defiant. When kids begin disappearing, she also has the unique ability to see what’s happened to them in her dreams.
|When you're compelled to kill, but it's also League Night.|
“Gifted” kids, outcasts, bullies, balloons, an abusive home, indifferent or ineffective adults, the period setting, terror in a small town…sounds like half of King’s bibliography, if you ask me. Still, The Black Phone takes those elements and spins them into a dark, compelling psychological horror tale with supernatural elements. There’s a bleak aesthetic to nearly every scene that’s almost oppressive, exacerbating the tone (the use of Super 8 for certain scenes is particularly effective). The film is seldom all that scary, but the dread is almost constant, and because the premise centers around the murder of children, this could tough sledding for some viewers. By this time, however, we’re too invested in Finney and Gwen to give up on them. Hawke and the Grabber may be the film’s centerpiece - at least in the promotional campaign - but the movie belongs to the kids, who are engaging, sympathetic and perfectly played by Thames and McGraw.
Other than a few lapses in plausibility and one or two needlessly stupid supporting characters (i.e. Max), The Black Phone is smart, suspenseful and culminates in a nerve-wracking climax. This might be the best Stephen King movie that King himself had nothing to do with.
FEATURETTES - “Answering the Call:Behind the Scenes of The Black Phone”; “Ethan Hawke’s Evil Turn”; “Devil in the Design”; “Super 8 Set”
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By director Scott Derrickson
“SHADOWPROWLER” - A pretty good short by director Scott Derrickson.
DVD & DIGITAL COPIES