THE BLACK PHONE poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

THE BLACK PHONE poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke, E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal, Miguel Cazares Mora
Writers: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, based on the short story by Joe Hill
Director: Scott Derrickson
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: June 24, 2022

THE BLACK PHONE is an adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story. Directed by Scott Derrickson, who co-wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill, THE BLACK PHONE alternates its primary point of view between thirteen-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) and his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).

It’s 1978, and Finney and Gwen live with their alcoholic dad Terrence (Jeremy Davies) in a modest suburb in northern Colorado. Local boys about Finney’s age are disappearing, suspected to be victims of the Grabber (Ethan Hawke).

Finney, who is a first-rate baseball pitcher but not a great fighter, gets stomped at school by bullies. He also doesn’t know how to defend Gwen from their dad’s drunken rages. Even so, Finney is a decent kid, so when he sees a man struggling with groceries, he stops to help. Uh-oh.

The man is indeed the Grabber, and when Finney wakes up, he’s in a large basement, separated from the house above by a locked door and a narrow stairway beyond. The Grabber wears a mask when he comes downstairs, promising that he won’t make Finney do anything he doesn’t want to do.

A slight spoiler here to say that nothing overtly sexual occurs. This is no doubt in part because it’s not in the source material, and in part because even major studio films that put young people in jeopardy don’t usually put them in that sort of jeopardy. The revulsion factor is too high.

This in no way detracts from the Grabber’s creepiness. He’s clearly got a lot of fetishes. Luckily for Finney, the Grabber also has a healthy sense of denial when it comes to the supernatural.

There’s a disconnected black phone in the basement. Finney hears it ringing. So does the Grabber, who writes the phenomenon off as some kind of electronic fluke. But Finney answers the phone, and finds himself speaking with the ghosts of the Grabber’s previous victims. But since they weren’t able to escape, how can they help Finney to do so?

Derrickson structures THE BLACK PHONE mainly as a suspense piece, punctuated by jolts of horror. He and Cargill thankfully play fair with stakes, clues and common sense. The opposing forces here are strategy versus strategy, not coincidence versus dumb choices.

Gwen, who is a delightful character with a major function in the plot, behaves intelligently throughout. The police, mainly personified by detectives played by E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal, are refreshingly open-minded when it comes to investigating leads.

Thames carries most of THE BLACK PHONE, and demonstrates that he is capable of powerful expression, as well as holding the screen whether partnered or alone. McGraw is charming as the emphatic Gwen. Hawke gives the Grabber a mysterious but consistent internal life, so that he never feels arbitrary in his actions.

Derrickson and Cargill have expanded the confines of Hill’s original work, filling in details and coming up with a smart way of providing flashbacks. Derrickson also stages a few strong jump scares, and provides a more definitive finale. Mostly, though, he keeps us glued to the question of Finney’s fate.

THE BLACK PHONE is well-paced, well-drawn, and gives us a feeling of being drawn into darkness. It fulfills its potential well.

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