[Screen It]


(2022) (Mason Thames, Ethan Hawke) (R)

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Horror: A boy must contend with being abducted by a child killer along with encounters over an old phone with the man's past victims.

It's 1978 and Finney (MASON THAMES) is a 13-year-old boy who, along with his younger sister, Gwen (MADELEINE McGRAW), is terrified of their widowed, alcoholic, and abusive father, Terrence (JEREMY DAVIES). But Finney has other worries as well, ranging from bullies to a child abductor known only as The Grabber (ETHAN HAWKE), who's been taking kids they know.

When Finney ends up as the latest victim and is held in a mostly barren room, he must not only contend with being unsure of what The Grabber might do to him and when, but also a reportedly dead phone on the wall that somehow connects to the spirits of past victims who do what they can to help the boy survive his ordeal.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

Forensics experts often state -- metaphorically -- that the dead often have tales to tell regarding their demise. Of course, that doesn't mean they're zombies or are reincarnated, or that their chatty ghosts appear to spill everything, but rather that clues found on and near them help the experts solve their deaths.

The dead and clues related to them are at the forefront of "The Black Phone," a highly effective, period-set, supernatural thriller. As directed by Scott Derrickson from a script he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill, it takes a bit before the dead start speaking up. After the opening credits sequence indicates that someone is abducting kids in small town America, we meet 13-year-old Finney (a terrific Mason Thames) who's having a great game of pitching until another boy bats a home run shot over the back fence.

His day doesn't get any better when he returns home and must contend -- like his younger sister Gwen (a feisty Madeleine McGraw) -- with his widowed, apparently alcoholic, and abusive father (Jeremy Davies). And then there are the bullies at school who also torment him, although at least he has a protector in Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), a boy who warns the bullies to stay away while also telling Finney that he needs to stand up for himself.

That, of course, comes to fruition when the young teen becomes the latest victim of "The Grabber" (a creepy, if somewhat two-dimensional Ethan Hawk). When Finney regains consciousness, he's in a mostly barren, mostly underground basement room with little to see beyond a lone black phone on the wall. He learns it doesn't work and the abductor says it hasn't for years since he was held down there as a boy himself.

But then the phone rings and Finney hears the somewhat confused voice of a boy who the teen quickly realizes is somehow that of a kid who was kidnapped before him. The voice isn't sure who or where he is, but -- like the ones that follow after that initial conversation -- seems to want Finney to avoid the same fate that befell him. It's just that they're usually not perfectly clear and detailed about what to do next. With each set of clues and partial suggestions, though, Finney moves one step closer to escaping, albeit not without numerous close calls, peril, and definite frights for him and the viewer.

At the same time, on the outside, Gwen is trying to find her brother, and her ace in the hole is that like her late mother, she has clairvoyant dreams and nightmares. But she can't summon or control them, and thus it's a race against time on both fronts before the killer decides he's had enough and wants to move on to his next victim.

Overall, it's a fairly gripping and certainly imaginative offering, grounded by the best kid characters and related performances in a horror flick in a long time. Simply put, the siblings and their bond feel real -- no doubt stemming from their domestic and then out-of-home situation -- and you'll be rooting for the sister to save her brother, and he himself.

And you can't ask for much more than that. Other than for the dead only to speak up when they have something constructive and helpful to say. "The Black Phone" rings off the hook with effective chills and thrills and thus rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed June 15, 2022 / Posted June 24, 2022

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