“The Black Phone,” based on a disturbing short story, marks another frightening feather in the cap of director Scott Derrickson.
In 2012, the filmmaker presented the genuinely scary “Sinister” – an eerily dreadful picture that earned its spot among the best horror flicks of the past 25 years.
Set in small-town Colorado but filmed in North Carolina circa 1970s, “The Black Phone” depicts a teenager (first-rate Mason Thames) and his sassy sister (Madeleine McGraw), the latter of whom possesses telekinetic abilities.
As their abusive father, Jeremy Davies – who starred in 2004’s “Helter Skelter” and still resembles Charles Manson – often tips the bottle prior to becoming enraged or depressed.
As a serial killer known as the Grabber, Ethan Hawke dons a top hat and white mask with large teeth, while driving a menacing black van. “I am a part-time magician,” he assures Finney, who falls for the act and pays the price while black balloons rise skyward.
An extra player emerges as Max (James Ransone), a high-strung crime enthusiast who is visited by detectives as he explains a hunch about the suspect.
The pair of investigators seem off their game, determined and suspicious but slow on the draw. They conduct various interviews and post flyers of kidnapped kids around town, to no avail.
The movie’s source material by author Joe Hill – son of Stephen King – has been logically stretched and altered by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, who give a great deal of attention to the movie’s era and place: Spectators may think back to memories of Little League baseball, riding bicycles to the corner store, fist fights among fellow students, and a soundtrack of our youth (best song in this case: “Fox on the Run” by Sweet).
As usual, artistic license can lead to implausibility, and “The Black Phone” makes no bones about requiring a suspension of disbelief. The young heroine’s prophetic dreams are no less believable than the reappearances of dead boys who contact captive Finney on the eponymous device.
Any concerns about credibility are offset and balanced by details involving the primary youths. Whether the boy is processing unexpected advice about how to escape his confines, or the girl is conveying her “visions” to adults, Derrickson and company unspool the action in a smart, suspenseful manner that elicits a creeping sense of anxiety as did “Sinister.”
Above all, perhaps, the story is about relating to loved ones lost, missing, wayward individuals and those breathing right in front of us. Human connections rise above the dreary suburbs.
Speaking of relationships, “The Black Phone” wouldn’t quite be the same without its antithetical white mask, an unsettling veil with expressions that change slightly from scene to scene. Hawke wears it well as the chilling villain who is bound to be the cause of nightmares.