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The Black Phone

phone 2.png

“Wanna see a magic trick?” The Grabber (Ethan Hawke)

The Black Phone has many of the obvious horror tropes like a magician (The Grabber), who plays to our worst fear, taking our kids from us, their youth, or plainly their lives. As in Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill, he’s elusive partly because he uses his own digs to commit his crimes and partly because his brother Max (James Ransone) is a clueless surrogate for a society, including most of the audience, that sees no evil.

The true magic of this modern terror flick is that the audience remains engaged even though it spies the clues early and predicts the ending. The magic of casting has two adolescent leads who couldn’t be more self-reliant and inventive. Thirteen-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is predictably weak with the bullies, sensitive with female classmates, and loving his potty-mouthed younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).

The bullies will get their comeuppances, and Finney will make life difficult for them and The Grabber. Beyond these horror staples, The Black Phone, set in 1978, touches common fears of all parents of all ages: the safety of their children. As in Stephen King’s It and elsewhere, an entertainer represents the danger inherent in media and the willingness of kids to take risks, the latter a trait that also may save their lives.

The supernatural motif, best expressed in the disconnected phone delivering messages from Grabber’s former victims, hints at the fabulous nature of horror flicks, a remove enough from reality to help through even the most timid of us voyeurs.

Add to this bitter brew the kids’ physically abusive father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), and The Black Phone is up to date in middle class paranoia for the 21st century. What keeps it so engrossing are the helpless but resourceful children and the feeling that Grabber may grab no more thanks to these same vulnerable kids.

A sub topic is Gwen communing with Jesus through her doll house and her dreams. At some point she questions whether Jesus is real if he allows the serial abductor to commit his crimes. While this theological puzzle is still alive today, writer Joe Hill (based on his short story), writer C. Robert Cargill, and director Scott Derrickson don’t deflect us from the more mundane problems such as finding Grabber and the captured Phinney.

Although The Black Phone should deter you from rehabbing your old dial phone, it should not keep you from enjoying the best of the horror tradition and seeing Ethan Hawke expand his considerable acting chops.

The Black Phone

Director: Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange)

Screenplay: Derrickson, C Robert Cargill (Doctor Strange) from Joe Hill short story

Cast: Ethan Hawke (Northman)

Run Time: 1h 42m

Rating: R

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, is host of WCBE's programs It's Movie Time and Cinema Classics, and the podcasts Back Talk and Double Take. Contact him at johndesando52@gmail.com.