‘THE BLACK PHONE’
Rated R. At AMC Boston Common and South Bay Center, Regal Fenway and suburban theaters.
Ingeniously plotted, with vivid, often nasty characters, “The Black Phone” is one terrific tension-producing nightmare that won’t let you look away.
The twist here is that that black phone is dead — as in disconnected — yet it works as a way for dead victims to communicate.
In a Denver suburb a serial kidnapper nicknamed “The Grabber” has been snatching young boys off the streets. Once they disappear, they’re never heard from again. There’s only a rumor that a big black van would appear whenever a kid disappeared.
“The Black Phone” is adapted from Joe Hill’s short story by co-writer and director Scott Derrickson. Hill is Stephen King’s talented, best-selling son.
“The Black Phone” begins by sketching the tough lives of Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), a hotshot baseball pitcher bullied at school, and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), a tough kid whose “dreams” suggest she has psychic powers inherited from her late mother.
The Shaw kids navigate daily life with an abusive alcohol-and-rage-aholic father (Jeremy Davies, as intense as he ever was) who loves to beat them with a leather strap. He’s the monster we know.
When Finney gets snatched by The Grabber, he’s kept in a soundproof basement with a mattress and that dead phone. The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), always in his scary horned Joker-style mask, likes to mentally torture his captives until he decides to kill them.
“The Black Phone” follows Gwen’s attempts to help the mightily ineffectual police.
Finney discovers that when the phone rings he’s talking with each of The Grabber’s previous victims who give him advice on how to stay alive.
This supernatural touch is, I’d guess, Hill stepping into dad’s terrain and where the police procedural stops as Finney’s tasks take shape and become steps to attain his freedom.
Each caller has some essential information that not only keeps hope alive but practical information about his not quite desolate lair.
“The Black Phone” harkens back to “Carrie” in its portrait of the hell that high school can be and in Gwen has the kind of spunky foul-mouthed kid who is the smartest one here — she just doesn’t know it yet.
There’s a wonderful visual around the school where walks are always lined by cyclone fencing, suggesting that these kids are captives — even before The Grabber gets to them.
Hawke is mightily malevolent under the ever-present mask.