The year is 1978, and a spate of child disappearances have rocked a suburban Ohio town. The culprit is an unidentified figure (Ethan Hawke) nicknamed “the Grabber” by locals. 13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are aware of the kidnappings, but have more pressing concerns in the form of vicious bullies and an abusive father (Jeremy Davies).
On his way home from school one day, Finney is abducted by the Grabber, who locks him in a dank basement. Wearing a creepy mask to hide his face, the Grabber leaves Finney alone for hours on end, occasionally emerging from upstairs to give him food. Soon Finney hears ringing from the long-disconnected phone on the basement’s wall, and finds himself talking to the Grabber’s previous victims. The dead children warn Finney that he doesn’t have much time before the Grabber gets bored of toying with him, and give him bits of information that may be his only hope of escape. Meanwhile, psychically-gifted Gwen looks to her dreams for clues to her brother’s location.
Though billed as a straightforward horror movie, for much of The Black Phone’s runtime one could fairly categorize it as a prison-escape thriller, a genre which provides the movie’s best quality: nail-biting suspense. The scenes of Finney covertly preparing for his escape attempt under the omnipresent threat of the Grabber are riveting and almost unbearably tense, as are the disturbingly believable kidnapping scenes. By comparison, the frequent supernatural jump scares can’t help but feel tired and obligatory.
The script, though based on a Joe Hill story from 2004, is something of a pastiche, borrowing from Stephen King’s work – chiefly IT – as well as Stranger Things, itself a pastiche, so the whole thing becomes a sort of pop-culture Ouroboros. But The Black Phone never gets lost in the shadow of its influences, thanks in part to its stark depiction of real-world horrors and its aversion to nostalgia. If anything, the movie casts the 1970s in a hostile light, showing us an era where child abuse by both adults and peers was disconcertingly common. These ventures into bleak territory keep things from ever becoming too cute, though some of Gwen’s comic-relief quips skirt dangerously close.
Despite the inconsistent dialogue, The Black Phone’s lead duo of child actors are one of its best assets. Thames and McGraw make their characters are easy to root for, displaying a plucky, youthful resolve in the face of hellish circumstances. Hawke, meanwhile, brings restraint to a role that could have easily devolved into caricature, given that the Grabber is more a collection of creepy behaviors and visuals than an actual human being (which is largely the point). But Hawke does a fine job straddling the line between human and boogeyman, keeping the Grabber in a chilling uncanny valley.
The movie’s cyclical structure – Finney plots escape, Gwen dreams, police investigate, repeat – wears out its welcome by the third act, but The Black Phone manages to end on a high note, paying off its many setups in a satisfying, if not particularly shocking, finale. Despite a few sizable plot holes and some wonky pacing, The Black Phone is smarter and fleeter than the average horror movie, and that’s more than enough.