Review: Death comes calling in “The Black Phone”

“The Black Phone” is a supernatural thriller based on a short story by Joe Hill, son of legendary horror writer Stephen King. The new release is about a masked serial child abductor in the ‘70s whose latest victim he imprisons receives helpful phone calls from his deceased victims.

"The Black Phone" movie poster
"The Black Phone" is a feature film adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King. The new horror-thriller is playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter and the Sunset Cinema in Jenkins.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — An old, disconnected rotary phone in the basement of a serial child abductor and murderer takes center stage in the new horror movie “The Black Phone.”

The mysterious, supernatural calls received on the titular landline offer the only lifeline for the latest kidnapped boy locked in the bare-bones basement of a deranged masked killer.

Ethan Hawke plays the enigmatic and sparingly characterized tormentor nicknamed The Grabber by the locals of a terrorized town with an alarming number of missing children.

Mason Thames is the shy but clever 13-year-old who engages in a battle of wits with Hawke in the soundproof floor of The Grabber’s home where the teen is held captive against his will.

Madeline McGraw shines in the taut thriller as Thames’ on-screen younger sister who has clairvoyant properties and the precocious little girl steals most of the scenes she is in.


Based on a short story by Joe Hill, son of horror icon Stephen King, “The Black Phone” taps into what must be every parent’s worst nightmare and every child’s fear of being abandoned.

The R-rated motion picture runs almost two hours long but given its scant source material, the feature film adaptation could have delved deeper into The Grabber’s back story or origin.

Audiences can debate whether or not the inexplicable motivations depicted on screen and little expository into the mindset of Hawke’s character add or detract from the film’s horror.

Much like the goalie mask-wearing Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” film franchise, The Grabber wears a face mask but one that grotesquely features a rigor mortis-like grin.

Director Scott Derrickson may be best known to moviegoers for his superhero picture “Doctor Strange” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Marvel Cinematic Universe sorcerer.

That visually inventive entry in Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise established Derrickson as a bona fide big-screen builder of worlds, and he applies it to “The Black Phone,” which is set in the ‘70s.

black rotary phone
Rotary phones were a common sight in houses before the advent of cellular phones, but some homeowners still use them as landline phones.
Contributed / Quino Al via

It’s a time when children could ride their bicycles way after dark with nary a second thought about the perils of running around unsupervised, unchaperoned or unaware.

The Grabber shatters that period of childhood innocence with his grotesque and unsavory ways with unspeakable — and fortunately undepicted — acts of off-screen violence against children.


Thames and McGraw assuredly play siblings and are entirely believable as brother and sister, respectively, unlike some child actors whose performances are gratingly jarring or too cutesy.

They already have to contend with the at-home horror of living with a widowed, alcoholic, abusive father portrayed by Jeremy Davis, who was the pacifist in the World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan,” so it’s maybe not so surprising the siblings engage with The Grabber.

And certainly for many Minnesotans of a particular age, “The Black Phone” is chilling because of the real-life case of Jacob Wetterling, a St. Joseph boy who was abducted, molested and killed.

Frank Lee
Frank Lee

Unlike that murder mystery that was only recently solved, Thames’ character Finney or Finn receives a figurative lifeline in otherworldly phone calls from previous victims of The Grabber.

The phone calls Finn receives on the black phone come from beyond the grave with advice or tips from the deceased as to how to survive or overcome the teen’s captor.

The disembodied voices are unsettling and reassuring at the same time and leave movie audiences wondering if they are real, imagined or if there is a “The Sixth Sense” twist coming.

Will Finn escape a fate worse than death, will The Grabber elude the authorities and continue on his murderous rampage, will help come in the nick of time or is it already too late?

“The Black Phone” currently holds an 83% approval rating among critics and an 89% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.


The consensus from the critics at “‘The Black Phone’ might have been even more frightening, but it remains an entertaining, well-acted adaptation of scarily good source material.”

“The Black Phone” is playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter and the Sunset Cinema in Jenkins.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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