That is until a disconnected black rotary phone on the wall of the dank basement in which the Grabber has imprisoned Finney begins to ring. The boy picks it up, only to begin receiving calls from the Grabber’s previous victims, calls that may hold the key to Finney’s only chance at escape.

Like Sinister, The Black Phone is a slow burn that gradually escalates the tension once Finney is in the hands of Hawke’s genuinely unsettling Grabber. This is also a movie that acutely savors its period details, although not in a self-conscious way that’s drenched in nostalgia like Stranger Things. Rather The Black Phone organically weaves its ‘70s references to Happy Days and the Edgar Winter Group. And, more importantly, it hones in on the development of Finney, his younger sister Gwen, and their daily lives, creating that all-important empathy so essential to a film like this once the horror becomes almost unrelenting.

It also helps that Derrickson and Cargill have a natural feel for what it was like to be a kid during the ’70s, and that like Hill (and his dad Stephen King) they know how to write the kids in this film. Of course it wouldn’t work if the kids weren’t so damn good: Thames’ Finney is bullied by other kids at school but is not about to let it drag him all the way down. Meanwhile McGraw’s sassy, foul-mouthed Gwen is a fiercely courageous warrior, determined to speak her truth at all costs as she frantically does everything she can to find her brother.

Then there is Hawke, playing the first truly evil character in his career, and bringing to it the kind of nuance and complexity that is a staple of his work. We never find out much about Grabber, including his real name; we simply know he used to be a magician and kidnaps his victims in the same black van that he traveled in to his bookings. He hides his face behind a demonic mask that he can remove partially or switch out sections of, which makes it somehow even creepier than if he never removed it at all. Hawke walks the line between portraying utter soullessness and giving us glimpses of the shattered person underneath the Grabber persona, keeping him intriguing but never over-explaining his vile nature.

While these three performances anchor the film, a couple of others fall short: Jeremy Davies as Finney and Gwen’s dad is too one-dimensional and exaggerated as a character who doesn’t necessarily deserve sympathy (he uses corporeal punishment in his kids for one thing, still accepted in the ‘70s), but who comes across as almost too unstable to be walking free himself.

Elsewhere James Ransone, another Derrickson holdover from Sinister, is recruited by the director to provide comic relief as a local conspiracy theorist who’s fascinated with the Grabber. His scenes are tonally jarring, however, and the payoff for his character simply doesn’t work in this context. But other than that, and a few other moments where you can feel the filmmakers stretching the material out to make a 26-page story into a 90-minute film, The Black Phone is an effective, frequently terrifying, and eventually poignant horror outing. The relationship between Gwen and Finney is the solid gold heart of the story, genuinely investing us in their fates and delivering satisfying character development for both.


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