Director Scott Derrickson
Screenplay Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring Mason Thames, Madeline McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke. E. Roger Mitchell

There is something special about a director who knows how to work with kids. This is the case with Scott Derrickson and his two featured players, Mason Thames and Madeline McGraw, in the supernatural horror The Black Phone. The premise starts out as a simple story of kids going missing in North Denver in the year 1978. They are all victims of a serial child abductor named “The Grabber,” and they’ve all been boys in their mid to late teens.

Finney and Gwen, played by Thames and McGraw

The first part of the story covers brother and sister Finney and Gwen Shaw (the afore mentioned Thames and McGraw). They’re lower middle class, with a widowed father (Davies) who is a tormented individual, due to the loss of their mother, among other things. Finney is a pitcher with “a mint” of an arm, but he’s still bullied quite ruthlessly once his friend / protector Robin is taken by The Grabber. Around this time, Gwen is interrogated by the police, and then punished by her father for dreams that she has related to the abuctions. Soon thereafter, Finney is taken.

The story is not so much a mystery for who the grabber is, we know it’s Hawke, and he really throws himself into the role. The best part about The Black Phone is that we never lose the perspective of Finney or Gwen. We’re not given a ton of information about WHY Hawke’s creep does what he’s doing. And we’re not real sure what has happened to the kids that he grabbed before Finney. We only know they are not down in the soundproof basement where Finney is now trapped.

What we do have in terms of exposition is a seemingly non-functional black phone on the middle of the wall in the basement. Finney gets calls from time to time. And what he hears helps to propel the story along in ways that don’t seem obvious, even if they are inevitable.

This would not be as good were it not for the rock solid performances of the two leads. Both show a distinct ability to act beyond their years but to, wisely, just play the part of kids. There are no computer wiz kids or experts on random subjects here. There are just two kids struggling to get by and survive in a world that is brutal enough without some creep kidnapper. Their performances are incredible and they add a simple reality to circumstances that could otherwise be overwhelming to take in terms of otherworldly horror.

The direction, and especially the editing, is solid and assured. Derrickson may have walked from Dr. Strange 2, but he’s improved vastly with his work on the first film. There are no wasted scenes, but there are more than a few surprises for even jaded horror buffs. This is a very good film, bordering on great. One will definitely feel like they’ve gone through hell in the seventies when they come out of this movie.

(**** out of *****)

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