The Black Phone (Universal, Blu-ray + DVD, R, 104 min.). Ethan Hawke, whose lower half of his face is covered nearly all the time, plays the psychotic, often volatile Grabber in this effective film of psychological terror merged with the paranormal. The director is Scott Derrickson, who also directed Hawke in the horror film “Sinister” (2012). Both films were co-written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (they also worked together on 2016’s “Doctor Strange”), with this one based on a 2004 short story by Joe Hill (aka Stephen King’s son).

In “Sinister,” Hawke played an egomaniac crime writer, who relocates his family to a house where murders were committed and, unbeknownst to him, unsettled spirits still inhabit. There are spirits in this film too, those of The Grabber’s victims, teenage boys he abducts with black balloons, talk of a magic act and a black van. These spirits reach out to The Grabber’s latest victim, Finney (a solid Mason Thames of TV’s “For All Mankind,” “Walker”).

Finney is actually the least likely to survive an abduction, as he is constantly bullied at school, and the one tough kid who defended him (Miguel Cazarez Mora as Robin) already has fallen victim to The Grabber. However, Finney’s late mother had psychic ability with visions and dreams that came true. At least the dreaming power seems to have been passed along to her daughter Gwen (Madeleine McGraw of TV’s “Secrets of Sulphur Springs”), Finney’s younger sister. It also may be why Finney is able to hear the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims on the black phone in the soundproof basement where he is being held.

Despite the phone’s wire having been cut and the voices being of the dead, Finney can hear them, and they give him helpful survival tips that add up to a good, exciting ending. My only, minor criticism is why didn’t The Grabber notice that the window grill had been pulled down in one of Finney’s escape attempts.
Finney and Gwen’s homelife is not that safe either, with Jeremy Davies (“Twister,” “Saving Private Ryan,” TV’s “Lost”) playing their abusive, alcoholic father Terrence. Here, the siblings’ bond is played up as they take care of each other. A similar bond existed between Finney and Robin, his school protector.
The film received eight nominations for The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films’ Saturn Awards.

Bonus features — not seen — include “Shadowprowler,” a short film by Derrickson; feature audio commentary by Derrickson, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes look and looks at the film’s design and at Hawke’s “evil turn,” which he reportedly was reluctant to undertake. Grade: film 3.5 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Theo Germaine, as non-binary Jordan, exits the bus at the conversion camp in “They/Them.” Courtesy of Blumhouse


They/Them (Blumhouse, Peacock streaming, NR, 100 min.). Like “The Black Phone,” a Blumhouse production and available on Peacock streaming, “They/Them” returns Kevin Bacon to his horror roots as the evil director of an LGBTQ+ conversion camp, as if the idea of the camp itself is not horrific enough. However, the film, directed and written by Josh Logan, mishandles the horror and it often seems as if one is watching two different films. It is not hard to figure who the killer is and their motive, as the killer only goes after the camp staff and none of the young adult campers, aka victims of psychological manipulation and even aversion therapy that uses shock treatment.

The weaknesses in the script are surprising, as Logan is the Oscar-nominated writer of “Gladiator,” “Hugo” and “The Aviator.” This is his first time directing, however.

Bacon, of course, early in his career was in “Friday the 13th” (1980), but he has pretty much stayed away from horror since, at least the slasher kind. He was in last week’s reviewed “Flatliners,” which was more psychological, had incendiary sex with real-wife Kyra Sedgwick in “Pyrates” (1991) and helped kick off a franchise by battling subterranean Graboids in “Tremors” (1990).

Here, Bacon plays Owen Whistler, who runs the camp with his wife (Carrie Preston). He seems all friendly and nonjudgmental at first, but that is just part of his softening-up process. At one point, he even forces one of the campers to shoot his dog – talk about cliches.

The students are a mixture of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders. The standout is Theo Germaine (Netflix’s “The Politician”) as non-binary Jordan, who uses the pronouns they/them. Not only are they the most level-headed, they are willing to swing into action and are first to realize the camp is not all sunshine. Other campers get their moments, as the horror elements are missing for a long section of the film. In fact, the campers’ stories work better than the horror. I enjoyed when they all came together singing Pink’s “Perfect.” However, this is nothing like the camp over on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

Other than the opening ax murder, which initially seems out of place, it takes 45 minutes for the film to turn dark. Surprisingly, sex does not happen until 66 minutes in, with three quick couplings. One thing that should have been explored more is the handyman’s creepy doll collection. Grade: film 2.25 stars

Baby Assassins (Japan, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or DVD, NR, 95 min.). And sometimes martial arts and comedy do not mix well. Comedy, of course, is a very subjective thing and this film, originally streamed on Hi-YAH!, landed completely flat for me. The opening and closing action sequences are good, but the middle was a horrible bore.

The setup is that there are two female assassins who have just graduated from high school. Their boss tells them that to fit in, they must get parttime jobs and room together. At first, of course, their personalities do not mesh and that is where the supposed humor comes in, or does not come in.

The beginning opens with Mahiro Fukagawa (Saori Izawa) applying for a job, but she soon becomes bored with the questioning and shoots her interviewer dead. She leaves the room, and we realize she is in a convenience store, where the other six clerks attack her. She quickly and expertly takes care of five of them, mostly using a knife she takes from one. The sixth one, who waits to confront her, is tougher, but then roommate Chisato (Akira Takaishi) helps her out.

Or did at all happen? Suddenly, we are back in the room and the prospective boss is still alive. It is at that point that the film totally lost me and the “humor” that followed about them living together just became drudgery. Much of what immediately follows is an extended flashback to two weeks prior. As for their jobs, they are really bad at them.

Their next assignment puts them on the radar of a Yakuza, whose own teenage daughter wants to find and eliminate the killer. The Yakuza and his son happen to stop in at the weird restaurant/hospitality escort place where Chisato has just gotten a job. Soon, Chisato initiates some mayhem, and more deaths follow.

The action ending has the two roommates attacking the Yakuza’s headquarters and includes a nice hand-to-hand fight sequence among all the gun and machinegun mayhem. The girls leave behind 24 bodies.

The film is directed by Hugo Sakamoto (“A Janitor,” which also starred Izawa and Takaishi), with action direction by Kensuke Sonomura (John Woo’s “Manhunt,” “Nowhere Man”). It was a Jury Special Award Winner at the 2022 Fantasporto Film Festival. Grade: film 2 stars

Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.

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