The Black Phone

Set in 1978, a child killer nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has been terrorizing a Colorado suburb.  Under the guise of a hapless magician, he snatches kids in broad daylight, spraying an intoxicant into their faces before cramping them into his black van.  A middle-schooler named Finney (Mason Thames) eventually becomes his target and finds himself trapped in a soundproofed basement.  When Finney is alone, a phone on the wall rings.  This is curious as the phone is disconnected.  On the other end is the voice of another boy Finney knew.  Subsequent calls are from the other boys who’ve gone missing, five in all.  Initially they give Finney advice on how to not play The Grabber’s “game”, which has been lethal for them.  They then proceed to coach him on things he can do to try to escape.

Before Finney’s abduction, his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) had dreams about The Grabber.  After confiding her dreams to her friends, they tell the school, which leads to a visit from the detectives working the case.  Finney and Gwen’s father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) is furious that she’s told anyone about her dreams and physically punishes her for doing so.  However, when Finney goes missing, he agrees to let her try to find her brother.  While Finney prepares to confront his would-be killer, Gwen has a vision that reveals the address where her brother is being held.  The last act features one of the most tense and expertly crafted confrontations I’ve seen in a horror movie.

If The Black Phone were only about The Grabber and Finney, it would have been a serviceable horror movie.  However, director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C Robert Cargill add texture to the story by taking the time to fully explore Finney and Gwen’s lives.  The movie deftly alternates between “delivering the goods” and providing an incredibly dark meditation on the perils of childhood.  (Yes, hell is definitely for children.)  While The Grabber certainly is the most dangerous element in their lives, he is just one of many that children must learn to endure.  The Black Phone expertly shows how children are mostly left to fend for themselves in a world where the danger could come from anywhere.  Rest assured, The Black Phone is scary.  That it does so in such a thoughtful way is surprising.  Recommended.

The Black Phone is ostensibly a horror movie about a child killer named The Grabber (Ethan Hawke).  Instead of lurking in the shadows, he emerges sporadically in broad daylight, cruising the Colorado suburb he terrorizes in a black van with black windows.  The van’s logo announces him as a magician, and when he appears before his victims, he’s dressed in a top hat and cape.  When their curiosity is piqued, he feigns clumsiness to lure them closer.  Children being children, they want to help him and instead become easy prey.  Like all hunters of children, The Grabber uses their innocence against them.

The hero of this story is Finney (Mason Thames), a teenage boy from a broken home.  His father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), is an alcoholic with a temper.  Finney and his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) walk on eggshells around him.  Since every noise they make during the day risks setting him off, breakfast is an auditory minefield.  Things are “better” in the evening, when Terrence returns from work and drinks himself to sleep.  At those times, Finney and Gwen can watch TV without risking their father’s wrath.

Finney is a nice, good-natured kid who makes friends easily.  Instead of viewing Bruce (Tristan Pravong), the kid who hit a winning home run off of him as an enemy, he shakes hands with him instead.  Bruce compliments Finney on his pitching arm, which he describes as “mint”.  Unfortunately, Finney’s gentile nature makes him an obvious target for bullies, but he resists fighting back.  One of his classmates, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), offers him  protection in return for help with homework.  This mutually beneficial relationship only offers Finney a temporary reprieve from the bullies, however, as The Grabber abducts Robin off the street.  Terrence and the other parents comb the neighborhood for Robin, to no avail.  Soon, flyers with Robin’s picture paper over those of the previous missing child, Bruce.

Gwen has been having dreams of the abducted children, and has told Finney and others about them.  (She believes her visions are from Jesus.)  This leads to her being called to the principal’s office to answer questions from detectives.  She’s hostile towards them and refuses to answer their questions.  The detectives follow-up with Terrence at his job, which makes him furious.  When Finney comes home from school, he walks in on his father whipping Gwen with his belt.  Terrence angrily insists that Gwen say that her dreams are not real.  Finney keeps his distance but glares at his father.

Before long, The Grabber abducts Finney (Mason Thames), the protagonist and hero of our story.  Like other children in his suburb, he’s aware of the grabber and his victims.  When Finney awakens to find himself in a sealed basement with a man wearing a mask, he realizes that he will never make it out alive.  The Grabber appears and talks to Finney in a friendly voice and says that he’ll never hurt him.  Since Finney knew his previous five victims, he doesn’t believe him.  The room has been soundproofed, so Finney can scream all he wants but no one will hear him.  After The Grabber leaves, Finney inspects the room.  There are no obvious means of escape.  A phone on the wall doesn’t work, its line being cut.

One night, The Grabber seemingly leaves the door to the chamber open.  While Finney considers using this opportunity to escape, the black phone rings.  On the other end is Bruce.  Bruce doesn’t remember his name, but remembers that he liked playing baseball.  He repeats what he told Finney when he was alive, that Finney’s arm is “mint”.  He tells Finney not to take the bait.  The Grabber is playing a game called “naughty boy”.  He waits for his victim to walk into the kitchen upstairs and whips them to death for trying to leave.

Over the next several days, Finney receives calls from Robin as well as the other boys who’ve gone missing.  Finney has met all of them before except one who he only knows by name.  The boy’s response to Finney’s admission is both chilling and heartbreaking when he says that he was invisible when he was alive, but everyone knows who he was after he died.  (The macabre point being that it is much easier to accept uncomfortable truths about when you are dead.)

Eventually each boy provides Finney with advice and weapons he can use to either escape from or defeat The Grabber.  After Finney refuses to play the game for several days, a victim named Vance (Brady Hepner) tells Finney that “tonight’s the night” and that he better prepare himself to fight for his life.  At the same time, Gwen has a vision that explicitly includes the address of The Grabber’s home.  She alerts the detectives and bikes over to the house while Finney lays in wait for The Grabber.  I’m being intentionally vague here because the way Finney assembles everything the dead children have given him is nothing short of ingenious.  Describing the final confrontation between Finney and The Grabber as tense wouldn’t do it justice.  Given everything that preceded it, I was pleasantly surprised that the movie ended on an optimistic note, and not a fake-out.

Analysis

If The Black Phone had focused only on the cat-and-mouse games between Finney and The Grabber, it still would have been a taught little horror movie.  However, instead of leading with Finney’s abduction, writers Scott Derrickson and C Robert Cargill spend about twenty or thirty minutes exploring Finney’s life, both at school and at home.  This lead-up reveals how Finney’s life, like that of most kids, routinely requires him to confront and survive one harmful situation after another.   His life, like that of other abducted children, was dangerous long before The Grabber set his sights on him.

In TBP, childhood is basically a proving ground that will either make or break you.  On the trivial side, there are the expected bumps, bruises and scrapes that come when a child interacts with the physical world.  (The opening title sequence brilliantly depicts this with a montage.)  The physical wounds from these accidents eventually heal, however, and you learn the simple lesson of what not to do, or, even better, how to do it the right way.

Learning to navigate your peers is perilous.  Children quickly need to develop the skills that will help them make friends and avoid bullies, life skills that you can only build through trial and error.  If you’re lucky, your friends can help mitigate your enemies, but ultimately you need to learn to stand up for yourself when help is nowhere to be found.

Lastly, children need to learn how to deal with the adults in your life.  They must discern which ones are helpful from those who are not, and even more importantly, those who want to do you harm.  Physical abuse can come not just from schoolyard bullies, but at the hands of your parents.  The other adults in your life are helpful, but only in a limited way.  Teachers, for example, help you learn but not survival skills.  Law enforcement has a presence, but they only  investigate tragedies but are unable to prevent them.  Even good, caring parents can’t protect you 24-7.  (They have jobs and lives of their own.)  If you’re unfortunate enough to have a parent like Terrence, home life offers no respite from the outside world.  (Without getting into specifics, I was very sympathetic towards Finney’s situation.)

TBP is also unsparing in its depiction of what happens to adults whose childhood was shaped by abuse at the hands of an adult.  For The Grabber, the movie strongly implies that the abuse he inflicts on his victims is related to the abuse he received as a child.  The fact that the deadly game the Grabber plays with his victims  is called “naughty boy” and involves him sitting in a chair in the kitchen awaiting to dole out punishment supports this conclusion.  The progression from suffering abuse as a child to becoming an abusive parent/adult is also suggested by Terrence’s punishment of Gwen.  Like the Grabber, his preferred tool is a belt.  While the movie never explicitly states that Terrence himself was abused, it seems unlikely he would use a method of punishment that he wasn’t already familiar with.

To the credit of the filmmakers, they took an incredible risk by initially presenting Terrence as a dark and violent person, only to transform him over the course of the movie into a complex and compelling character.  Unlike other movies that feature an abusive parent, Terrence’s evil isn’t depicted in simplistic, black-or-white terms.  TBP gives Terrence the opportunity to explain himself to Gwen, that his abusive treatment is a result of trauma from his wife’s suicide, as well as his fear that she will end up with a similar fate.  This revelation isn’t provided to make him sympathetic to Gwen (or us), but serves as an example of how understanding a person we fear and/or hate can help us to avoid a similar fate.  As the end of the movie pointedly shows,  Finney and Gwen refusing to forgive Terrence in spite of his tearful entreaties.  Understanding is one thing, but forgiveness is a bridge too far.

TBP doesn’t shy away from depicting how Terrence’s abuse has affected his children in different ways.  Finney and Gwen have grown to have completely opposite feelings towards physical violence.  Finney, after witnessing the punishment his sister endures, is effectively a pacifist.  He doesn’t defend himself when bullies attack him and even sympathizes with a bully Robin beats up.   Gwen, the one who suffered the beatings, relishes the opportunity to hit others.  In the final confrontation, Finney embraces violence as the means to escape and defeat The Grabber.  In the end, he is finally able to walk through school without fear of being bullied.  What is unclear is whether Finney has learned that violence is only acceptable to defend himself against those who would hurt him.  I’d like to think that is the case.  At least Terrence will never lay a hand on Gwen ever again, now that he’s outnumbered.

For a director with only six feature films to his credit, Scott Derrickson has quite a resume.  Of his films that I’ve seen, I’d rank TBP as one of his best, right alongside The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister.  I really liked Dr. Strange, but I couldn’t detect any of his style in that movie.  I can’t dismiss that movie as an example of a director getting swallowed by the Marvel machine, because I felt the same way towards The Day The Earth Stood Still.  Derrickson seems much more comfortable in smaller productions, which are better suited to his artistic leanings.  Having seen Sinister and Sinister 2 (which Derrickson produced), TBP felt very familiar aesthetically, but not in a bad way.

Even with his best movies, Derrickson’s direction tends to be a bit flat.  Compared to a more flamboyant director like James Wan, Derrickson is decidedly a minimalist.  He frequently opts for stationary cameras and slow tracking shots to build tension and dread.  Unlike other modern horror movie directors who rely on soundtrack queues and quick edits to scare the audience, Derrickson crafts four or five brilliant jump scares in TPB only with lighting and camera movement.  In this way, Derrickson has emerged as a descendent of the horror maestros of the Seventies and Eighties: Carpenter, Hooper and Craven.

Another underrated aspect the best horror movies share is their ability to make us feel uneasy when not scaring us out of our wits.  Derrickson’s unblinking camera accomplishes this by lingering on the evil right in front of us.  Instead of using reaction shots, edits or cutaways to diffuse the impact of the horrible visions on the screen, Derrickson holds steady and refuses to give the viewer any escape or leniency.  Similar to Emily Rose’s possessions or the satanic snuff films in Sinister, the scenes in TBP with The Grabber force us to experience the same emotions as Finny.  Like the best directors, Derrickson holds no pity for his audience.

As good as Derrickson and his directorial incilnations tend to be, I don’t believe I’ve seen his best movie.  TBP’s dramatic scenes are the best Derrickson has directed to date, but aside from Gwen’s punishment scene, they felt a bit static and inert.  At the risk of sounding glib, I believe that if Derrickson loosened the restraints on himself a little and judiciously employed a few more edits and different camera angles, that would be the advantage of all of his movies, including TBP, which I really enjoyed.  For example, think of what TBP would have been like if the visual energy of the last act was present at some level in the preceding acts.

TBP certainly had a great hook in there being a black phone that the hero uses to communicate with the killer’s previous victims.  I would argue that having Ethan Hawke, a highly respected actor who is known for his work in independent films, play the child killer was equally as important for building interest in this movie.  I have no idea why Hawke wanted to take this role or be in this film.  He is good as The Grabber, but he doesn’t do anything that couldn’t have been done by any number of decent actors playing this role.  With his recent appearance in the Disney+ series Moon Knight, I’m guessing that he decided at some point to start accepting all the roles he normally would have turned down.  Or maybe he’s pooling his money with these showy gigs to fund a pet project.  I never would have thought Hawke, a two-time Academy Award acting nominee, would turn up in a Blumhouse horror movie one day.  I’m glad he did, and I’m guessing he had fun playing the part, but, why?

All of the other performances in TBP were excellent.  Mason Thames gives a breakout performance as Finney.  I was impressed by how effortlessly he plays a character with such a deep and complex interiority.  Additionally, Thames made Finney’s transformation from a sensitive and thoughtful pacifist to someone brave enough to take on a serial killer completely convincing.

As Gwen, Madeleine McGraw deftly handles a character that requires an incredible range of emotions.  Her scenes with Jeremy Davies were incredible, from the grueling punishment scene to their later one where she convinces her father to let her help the police.  I completely bought her willingness to fight her brother’s bullies to the death.  The only scene I thought was overplayed too much for laughs was the one where she swears at the cops.  I laughed, but the scene would have been more effective without the verbal fireworks.  (I’d blame Derrickson for this one.)

Speaking of Davies, I vaguely remember him in CQ and Solaris, then nothing since.  He showed a lot of guts taking on a role like Terrence, where the audience will hate you the moment you lay a hand on a kid.  To his credit, he never wavers in his portrayal, and over the course of the movie delivers a very complex performance.  Just like Finney and Gwen, I came to understand the demons that drove him to do what he did, but I would never forgive him.

I hope that Derrickson makes a point of including Sinister actor James Ransone in his future films, like Sam Raimi includes Bruce Campbell or his brother Ted along for the ride.  Ransone’s Max brought a nice jolt of coke-fueled energy whenever he was on screen.

As yet another movie set in the Seventies, I’m glad Derrickson and the rest of the filmmakers never allowed historical accuracy to overwhelm the movie.  TBP is accurate in its portrayal of the period, but I never felt like I was sitting through a moving museum piece like Licorice Pizza or Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.  The clothes, the furniture, the appliances all felt appropriate, but were secondary to the story being told and never fetishized.  Thankfully, the filmmakers also resisted the urge to fill up the soundtrack with classic hits.  I only counted three needle drops in the movie, the best one being the use of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”.  This was the second time I’ve heard a song from The Dark Side of the Moon in a movie released in the last twelve months.  Marvel’s The Eternals first surprised me with its use of “Time”, and now this.  I’m not sure why I was surprised by either, but I was.

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