The Black Phone takes place in North Denver in 1978. In an early scene, we see an abusive father reading a copy of The Rocky Mountain News, the now-defunct newspaper where I worked as a film critic for 27 years.
Nice touch, I thought. Setting the movie in 1978 allowed The Rocky, as those of us who worked at the paper fondly referred to it, to live again.
But wait. In The Black Phone, the paper appears as a broadsheet. The Rocky was a tabloid.
Few will care or even notice but I wish the filmmakers had provided the full satisfaction of seeing the paper fully exhumed on screen.
Now that I've gotten that out of my system, the rest of the movie:
Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil, and two Dr. Strange movies) tells the story of 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), a kid who's kidnapped by a serial killer (Ethan Hawke) who imprisons the boy in a dingy basement.
As it turns out Finney's fierce younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) can dream things that are real. She ardently prays to Jesus, requesting that he grant her the dreams that will enable her to locate her brother.
If you're a Hawke fan like me, you'll probably want to know that Hawke spends most of the movie behind a grotesque horned mask with interchangeable parts: A leering rictus of a smile can be replaced by a scowling frown.
Hawke plays The Grabber, a fiend who has been abducting North Denver boys and killing them. Posing as a magician, Grabber cruises the neighborhood in a black van filled with black balloons.
Before he's abducted, Finney has trouble with bullies at school. We'll learn that the movie will teach Finney to stand up for himself. Excuse me, but there had to be an easier way. Maybe a karate class.
The soundproof basement where Finney is kept has one defining feature, a black rotary phone that, according to The Grabber, doesn't work. When the wall phone starts ringing, Derrickson creates mystery about exactly who's calling poor Finney. And how can he be getting calls from a long disconnected phone?
The situation breeds a fair amount of suspense. We never know when The Grabber will unlock the cellar door and confront his prisoner, even as Finney searches for a way to escape.
No fair telling more but the movie, based on a story by Joe Hill, makes sketchy work of an alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) who beats Gwen with a belt because she's starting to act like her mother, a troubled woman with clairvoyant powers who killed herself.
The mixture of the supernatural (Gwen's dreams and those callers on the phone) and old-fashioned serial killing don’t totally mesh and the movie sometimes squanders credibility.
No slouch when it comes to horror, Derrickson knows how to create a tension-breeding mood of menace. But jump scares, a couple of attempts at humor, and intermittent helpings of Hawke can't quite push the movie over the top.
The movie, by the way, was filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina.