Supernatural 'Black Phone' dials up jump-scares in derivative child serial killer thriller

  • Finney (Mason Thames) tries out the old dial telephone in the basement where he's being held captive in "The Black Phone."

    Finney (Mason Thames) tries out the old dial telephone in the basement where he's being held captive in "The Black Phone." Courtesy of Universal Pictures

  • Ethan Hawke plays The Grabber, a suitably frightening figure wearing his demonic mask in "The Black Phone."

    Ethan Hawke plays The Grabber, a suitably frightening figure wearing his demonic mask in "The Black Phone." Courtesy of Universal Pictures

 
 
Posted6/23/2022 6:00 AM

"The Black Phone" -- ★ ★

Two young actors, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, deliver performances so immersive and realistically polished that they pick up a lot of the narrative slack in Scott Derrickson's jump-scary and derivative child serial killer thriller "The Black Phone."

 

They play Finney and Gwen, tweener siblings who cross paths with a sadistic creepo in 1978 north Denver, but the place feels more like StrangerThingsTown or StephenKingsville, especially the first "It" movie.

Instead of a killer clown, this supernatural tale features a mad magician nicknamed "The Grabber." Instead of red balloons, black ones. The female leads in both films suffer from abusive fathers. (Here, Jeremy Davies plays the dad, who mercilessly beats precocious Gwen for divulging her premonitions of death that come to her in nightmares.)

Siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) cross paths with a sadistic child killer in the supernatural thriller "The Black Phone."
Siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) cross paths with a sadistic child killer in the supernatural thriller "The Black Phone." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Grabber has already abducted five boys by the time he gets around to kidnapping Finney and throwing him into a standard-issue, soundproofed basement from hell, complete with a filthy mattress, dingy walls with rusty cracks that look like dried blood, and an old dial telephone that The Grabber assures his victim does not work.

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Until it rings.

Finney (Mason Thames) becomes a victim of the serial killer "The Grabber" (Ethan Hawke) in the "The Black Phone."
Finney (Mason Thames) becomes a victim of the serial killer "The Grabber" (Ethan Hawke) in the "The Black Phone." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

And only Finney apparently can hear it.

Respected actor Ethan Hawke -- the star of Derrickson's 2012 horror tale "Sinister" -- plays The Grabber, a suitably frightening figure wearing his demonic version of the "V for Vendetta" mask, although Hawke's villain lacks the personality and love/hate appeal of classic boogeymen such as Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Hannibal Lecter or Robert Englund's Freddie Krueger.

Ethan Hawke plays a child serial killer nicknamed "The Grabber" in the supernatural horror tale "The Black Phone."
Ethan Hawke plays a child serial killer nicknamed "The Grabber" in the supernatural horror tale "The Black Phone." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Brett Jutkiewicz's stylized camerawork evokes the look of late '70s cinema (and the 1980s horrorfest "Friday the 13th"), although pop song selections seem generic, especially "Free Ride," released half a decade before this movie takes place.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Derrickson, who directed the impressive Marvel superhero adventure "Doctor Strange," relies on several effective jump-shocks and supernatural long-distance calls to dial up the chills in "The Black Phone," an R-rated "Twilight Zone" episode with a long fuse that eventually pays off with a series of explosive moments.

Even so, these fall short of true terror and white-knuckle suspense, as if Derrickson really did phone it in.

• • •

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Other: A Universal Pictures release in theaters. Rated R for language, violence. 102 minutes

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