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"The Black Phone" dials into scary stuff, despite plot holes

The Black Phone

Starring Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal. Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill from a short story by Joe Hill. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Now playing at theatres everywhere. 102 minutes. R


Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The plot holes in "The Black Phone" are big enough to drive a creepy black van through.

Take that sinister vehicle, for example. It's driven by "The Grabber," the devil-masked serial abductor and killer played by Ethan Hawke to mesmerizing effect. The Grabber often operates in broad daylight, seemingly unafraid of being spotted in the Denver suburb where he lives and preys, snatching kids right off the street.

It should be a more terrifying scenario than it is. People still let their kids wander around alone and there are apparently just two cops (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal) working on the case.

Don't let these and other quibbles stop you from dialling into the retro horror vibe of "The Black Phone." Set in 1978, a year with no pesky cell phones to worry about, it's a delightfully twisty yarn that blends survival drama with supernatural horror. Scott Derrickson ("Sinister") directs and co-writes from a short story written by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son).

Mason Thames is Finney, a 13-year-old pitcher for a Little League softball team who is a star on the diamond but a wimp off it. He's always being bullied by mean kids at school and mistreated by his alcoholic widowed father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Finney's younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), is made of sterner stuff. She fights back against the school bullies and her dad.

Gwen has same the gift of clairvoyance — or curse, as her father sees it — that her late mother had. Gwen has disturbing visions of what is happening to the kids snatched by The Grabber, but the images come to her in random fragments. Then Finney disappears and Gwen has all the more reason to try to make sense of her nightmares.

The phone of the title is in the basement where Finney is being held. When it rings, the voices on the other end are those of previous victims of The Grabber, offering advice. Are the calls a hallucination or do they offer salvation for Finney? There are more twists to this tale than at first seem apparent.

This is the first real villain's role for Hawke, who previously starred in Derrickson's haunted house hit "Sinister." Even behind a mask, Hawke burns through the screen with intense dread. He gives The Grabber a voice that's at once reassuring and unsettling. Save some applause for relative newcomers Davies and McGraw, who are terrific young actors.

The Grabber is supposed to be a magician, but the real sleight-of-hand is from Derrickson. Most of the violence seen on the screen is in the schoolyard and the home, the everyday horror meted out to others by unhappy kids and angry adults.

"The Black Phone" makes quotidian rage more horrifying than the stuff of nightmares. 🌓



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