It’s 1978 in North Denver, and the bleachers at the baseball diamond are filled with peel-top beers and brown corduroy. A Little League team is on the field; the star player swings at two strikes, then slams in a home run. He rides his bike home, smiling at the pretty classmates from the game; “Free Ride” blasts on the soundtrack. And then a black van turns a corner, and the music turns menacing.
The opening is, we discover, a bit of a fake-out; Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone,” which he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill (based on a short story by Joe Hill), is a missing kids story, set in the period when those of us who were kids felt like it was a case of not if, but when we were going to get swiped by a stranger. (It seemed as inevitable as getting stuck in quicksand.) In North Denver, the kids —and their parents — are terrified of the serial kidnapper the media has dubbed “The Grabber,” whose victims are up to four and counting.
Finn (Mason Thames), who pitched that home run, is a space-crazy kid, and a target of bullies. “You’re gonna have to stand up for yourself one day,” a tough friend tells him on, in a rather labored bit of foreshadowing. His sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) is something of a psychic (as her late mother was); she has vivid dreams, and, as she puts it, “Sometimes my dreams are right.” And lately, her dreams have been showing her things about these missing kids.
“The Black Phone” reveals the culprit pretty early: A “part-time magician” who lures his victims into a van, locks them in his basement, and says things to them like “I just wanted to look at you” and “I will never make you do anything that you won’t… like.” (Ethan Hawke plays the role and is clearly having a very good time playing a very nasty man.) Soon enough, he sets his sights on Finn, and as our resourceful hero attempts to puzzle his way out of that basement, a disconnected telephone on the wall keeps inexplicably ringing. When he picks up the phone, he gets strange calls, with guidance and warnings from the previous victims.
As you’ve probably put together, this is grim stuff — and not just all the kidnappings. Finn and Gwen come from a family that’s clearly broken, with an angry, alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies, really going for it), and there’s a sense of child discipline that is, as so much of it was in that era, child abuse. (McGraw handles this and several other difficult scenes well.) The film is at its best when showing how these two kids lean on each other — it’s a well-crafted relationship and feels like something we haven’t seen before.
But there are depths to those characters and their conflicts that go mostly unexplored. Finn is warned on the phone of his kidnapper, “He’ll punish you. He’ll beat you with that belt”— just as we’ve seen his father punish his sister with a belt because monsters and men have much in common. For her part, Gwen attempts to harness a bit of spiritual assistance in her clairvoyant dreams, but when Jesus doesn’t deliver, she curses him out and then muses, “Maybe you’re not even real.” But then the film cuts away, a spiritual crisis raised and abandoned.
And that’s the problem with “The Black Phone.” It delivers on its individual moments — the abduction sequence is scary, a bit with the snoozing kidnapper and a combination lock is nice and taut, and the emotional payoffs mostly land. (There’s a scene of Finn crying helplessly, played straight, which unexpectedly works — because it reminds us that, when you get down to it, he’s just a little kid.)
But those moments don’t accumulate. Derrickson can build a mood and craft creepy imagery, and he moves his camera with precision. But this feels like a notebook of compelling visual and narrative ideas that never quite fit together, that can’t quite manage to coalesce into coherence. This material is undoubtebly close to the filmmaker’s heart — he grew up in Denver and would’ve been about Finn’s age in 1978 — and it feels very much like a “back to basics” effort, a return to “Sinister”-style R-rated horror (complete with a Hawke reunion) after the director and his writing partner’s sojourn in Marvel-land for “Doctor Strange.” There’s much in “The Black Phone” to admire, but even the most patient audience may find themselves frustrated; waiting for these pieces to snap into place. [B-]