Movie Review: “The Black Phone” rings up a horror homage to King, “Twilight Zone” and ’70s Childhood

A few words of praise for an under-appreciated corner of the cinema are in order when talking about “The Black Phone.” Because if there’s anything that “The Quiet Place” taught us, it’s that sound, and the lack of it, is a key component of horror. And D. Chris Smith’s sound design for this Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange,” “”Sinister”) film is perfection itself.

The music is sparing, the best sound effect the simple land-line static of the movie’s titular gimmick, crackling that continues as we see who that disembodied (special effect) voice belongs to.

But the silences — the speech of warning and perhaps comfort that a principal gives her school but which no one hears, the long pauses our villain takes to let the aural void sink in — are epic. There are stretches in this movie, which I saw in a crowded preview last night, where you literally could hear a pin drop. The silence on the soundtrack is breathless, the held breaths of the audience deafening.

And then there’s the sound of the voice of Ethan Hawke, cast as “The Grabber,” the man who kidnaps children in this corner of North Denver (actually N.C.) in the late 1970s. Hawke’s speech has two timbres — the light, sensitive and soulful tones of his poetic and romantic roles, and a guttural growl he summons up when he goes dark.

The story, another mash-up from Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, might generously be called another homage to his father. The balloons are black, the masked villain isn’t actually a clown in this “It” meets “The Shining.” And father and son’s “Twilight Zone” (“Long Distance Call”) obsessions are evident. too.

The best “chip off the old block” mimicry is channeling the master’s fondness for the bitter, sometimes violent sweetness of childhood, as this story is about sibling devotion in an abusive household, the loss of a valued friend and childish initiative, taken when the adults can’t see the threat or are the threat themselves.

King mostly romanticized the “Stand By Me” early ’60s. “Secret Phone” taps into the “Free Ride” ’70s.

All of these components mesh nicely in Derrickson’s affecting and frightening film, a story not of innocence lost, but of surviving when there was never any real innocence to begin with.

Somebody is grabbing kids in suburban Denver. It’s the pre-Internet/pre-milk carton era, and cops have few clues while children are scared to even mention the nickname the police have given the person making children disappear — The Grabber.

That’s hanging over young Finney (Mason Thames of “For All Mankind”) and his tougher-minded sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw of Disney TV’s “Secrets of Sulphur Springs”). And it’s not like childhood is all that rosy for them as it is.

Their widowed dad (Jeremy Davies) drinks and uses his belt. Finney may be a pretty good Little League pitcher, but he’s bullied. Being told “Someday, you’re gonna have to stand up for yourself” by a friend (Miguel Cazarez Mora) is cold comfort.

Mouthy Gwen is entirely too unfiltered and foul-mouthed around the grownups to have an easy time of it.

And then the tall, muscular classmate Finney gave up a home run to vanishes. He’s just the latest and he won’t be the last.

The snatchings may be cliches — a black van, a magic act suggested by a logo, “Abracadabra” written on its side. But they’re sudden and horrific, a swirl of black balloons and a boy disappears, gone forever.

This is Finney’s fate. And once he’s trapped in a dungeon by a man in a Satanic mask, assuring him “I’m not going to hurt you again,” the kid has to realize that the police won’t save him, his little sister’s “dreams” didn’t prevent this and it’ll be up to him to work the problem, maybe with the help of whatever is on the other end of that “disconnected” old phone on the wall, the one that keeps ringing, the voices that keep warning, encouraging and trying to save another boy from their fate.

Derrickson, returning to the genre that gave him his break (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”), pins us in our seats with that first jolt of savagery, a brutal and bloody no holds-barred fight between two tweens. And then he repeats it.

Gwen is sassy and brave and more confident than her big brother, who can’t even protect her from their dad’s beatings when she lets slip that she has “dreams” and that “sometimes, they come true.” That gets the attention of desperate police, who’re sure she “heard” the crime scene details that she describes from somebody else, somebody who knows something.

Her foul mouthed insistence that she didn’t covers for the fact that she prays, profanely, to Jesus for these dreams, more fervantly after her brother disappears.

The kids are great, if a tad broadly drawn, more mature than they should be (another King trait), sentimental and sometimes resigned to their fate despite their hopes to get this cute classmate to notice or that adult to take them seriously.

Hawke is so menacing and evil in these masks and in this guise that he’s sure to haunt a few childhoods of kids whose parents ignore the R rating of “The Black Phone.” But as the movie points out, protecting your children from screen violence is no guarantee you’re not a bad parent yourself.

As with most films in the genre, a certain inevitability is built into the story’s tropes, and that contributes to the dread that hangs over the good ones. We’ve been shown how violent kids can be with each other and parents can be to their children. We don’t know what Hill and Derrickson might have in store for our victim, just that what they’re capable of.

And for all the breathless sound and fury of the clock-ticking-down climax, it’s the sound of “The Black Phone” that sticks with you and creeps you out, because you know that sometimes silence is just as menacing.

Rating: R for violence, bloody images, language and some drug use.

Cast: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell and Ethan Hawke.

Credits: Directed by Scott Derrickson, scripted by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, based on a short story by Joe Hill. A Universal/BlumHouse release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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