Is modern life so bleak that THE BLACK PHONE, a horror-thriller concerning a boy who is abused both at home and at school and is abducted and kept prisoner by a devil-masked lunatic known as “the grabber” is somehow the feel-good movie of the summer? Yes. Don’t blame the messenger. I’d even say it covertly sports the poignant reminder that we all survive and exist thanks to the acts and sacrifices of those who passed before us.
Ergo, I’d like to thank all my guardian angel ghosts out there. I see you and I’m mentally pouring one out to you.
Finney Blake (Mason Thames) is an affable 13-year-old living in an inadvertently hyper-stylish suburb in the aesthetically appealing golden year of 1978. Because he is modest and unassuming, most of his time is spent trying not to be beaten by marauding bullies or his brutish alcoholic father. Luckily he has a fantastic relationship with his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who has inherited their deceased mother’s psychic gifts (and is routinely punished for them). Shortly after Finney’s only friend and protector becomes yet another missing boy in their neighborhood, Finney himself bumps into a horrifically bizarre character driving a very conspicuous Magician’s Van filled with black balloons. It doesn’t end well. Finney finds himself in exactly the type of single mattress basement lair all sane minds fear. This one has a phone though- and it receives calls from his captor’s past victims who are generous enough to share helpful advice.
Director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert McGraw have already made it abundantly clear they know how to deliver the creeps with their previous collaboration SINISTER (2012). But whereas that film sometimes strained credibility in regards to human behavior, THE BLACK PHONE (based on a story by Joe Hill) has enough heart and soul to fully immerse you in the nightmare it’s selling. Much credit goes to young actor Mason Thames’ portrayal of Finney who comes across as a fusion of the grounded stalwart Laurie Strode (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) in HALLOWEEN (’78) and the mournful and inquisitive every-kid Mike Pearson (as played by A. Michael Baldwin) in PHANTASM (‘79). He instantly reads as someone you know or have known and if you don’t recognize him it might be because you were him. Ethan Hawke is equally convincing as the chuckling twisted predator who thankfully keeps his monstrous cards close to his chest. And who among us can look the gift horse of a hilarious supporting part delivered by the incredible James Ransone (SINISTER 1&2, IT: Chapter II) in the mouth?
THE BLACK PHONE is able to elicit sympathy for its characters in a way that is sadly too unique in modern horror which ramps the suspense up to stellar heights. It wants to scare you silly on one end of the receiver but the other end wants to remind you that maybe with a little help from some friends (living or dead) all of us are capable of sticking up for ourselves, fighting back, and finally treasuring those closest to us. As a kid from the seventies, I couldn’t help but appreciate how it presented a very recognizable sun-bleached world to me full of humiliations, aggravations, injustices, and the frustration of always getting a busy signal when you give Jesus a ring through prayer.
Ultimately, THE BLACK PHONE is a great reminder that horror films can do so much more than scare us, they can also inspire us to be brave in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. It’s frightening, yet ultimately exhilarating; like an unholy cross between THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE KARATE KID. Additionally, if you needed an extra reminder to stay the hell away from black vans this fine flick provides that too, and in spades.