Has there ever been a horror film more ill-served by its trailer than The Black Phone? Probably, but we cannot think of it now. It’s not that the trailer misrepresents the film’s content but rather that it makes the film look like a generic horror-thriller with little to distinguish it from a dozen other low-budget efforts churned out by Blumhouse Productions. Based on the Blumhouse pedigree and the trailer we would not blame audiences for giving the film a pass. However, The Black Phone is in fact extremely effective – not just at delivering scares but at engaging the audience on a visceral level that sucks them into the events onscreen. This is a movie you feel in your gut even before the protagonist is abducted by a serial killer.
As presented in the trailer, The Black Phone‘s plot sounds like a convoluted mess, with enough going on for three movies. It’s not enough that it’s about a high school kid held hostage by a malevolent masked man known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). And it’s not enough that there is a mysterious black phone – cord conspicuously cut – which nevertheless rings, delivering haunting messages from The Grabber’s dead victims to his current prisoner, Finney (Mason Thames). And it’s still not enough that Finney’s sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), has dreams the reveal clues to The Grabber’s crimes. No, on top of that there is something which the trailer could not squeeze in: Finney and Gwen have an alcoholic, physically abusive father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), who is almost enough of a monster to be the film’s villain.
And yet, somehow, the different elements mesh together, intersecting in unexpected but interesting ways: The Grabber is aware of the black phone though seemingly in denial about its supernatural nature, admitting it’s “spooky” but explaining away the ringing as being caused by static electricity. The ghostly phone calls and Gwen’s dreams synch up at one point, when she experiences a flashback to one of the victims whose dialogue forms the other side of the conversation Finney is having.
Most interesting, though not as well clarified as it should have been, Finney’s lifetime with an abusive parent may have given him skills useful in navigating his dangerous interactions with The Grabber, who is in some sense his father’s doppleganger (both use belts to inflict vicious punishment for misbehavior). Faceless, with no back story to humanize him, The Grabber is essentially an abusive father magnified into an archetype, eager for misbehavior to “justify” inflicting punishment. As one ghostly victim informs Finney, The Grabber cannot kill him unless he plays The Grabber’s game, which he calls “Naughty Boy.” Finney, who has learned to keep a low profile and remain nonconfrontational even when his father is mercilessly beating Gwen, is apparently not misbehaving in a way that identifies him as a Naughty Boy deserving The Grabber’s lethal punishment. Needless to say, Finney’s character arc involves manning up to the point where he can finally stand up for to the abusive Father Figure, but how can he possibly overpower his captor?
The various ghosts (some merely heard, others visible to the audience and/or Finney) have helpful suggestions about how to escape, none of which work on their own; however, the script finds clever ways to make these false leads pay off. Meanwhile, the local police, acting on hints from Gwen’s dreams,* are trying to track down The Grabber. Along the way, they encounter an over-enthusiastic civilian, Max (John Ransone), who thinks he can crack the case; in another of the script’s clever twists, this apparent comic relief character turns out to be tied into the plot in ways that are both funny and tragic.
None of this fully explains why The Black Phone works so well, because the film is filled with these touches, which seem small in isolation but eventually add up to something larger. A rival baseball player gives Finney a compliment that echoes later over the black phone. Gwen’s foul mouth (which at first seems like a cheap ploy to generate easy laughs) actually defines her as a character – the rebel hiding behind the facade she must present to her father of being a docile, obedient child. And Max tells the police he is on the verge of cracking the case, which sounds ridiculous, but then…
Scott Derrickson (who cowrote the screenplays with C. Robert Cargill, based on the short story by Joe Hill) directs the proceedings with grim intensity, not flinching from the touchy subject matter of child victims. Brief, early glimpses of a sinister black van suggest the offscreen horrors inflicted on the victims while foreshadowing Finney’s abduction. The harrowing scenes of corporal punishment are almost too close to reality; they evoke horror and revulsion more powerfully than any imaginary monster, setting the stage for The Grabber, who takes this sort of abuse to lethal levels.
In fact, one of the film’s weaknesses is that, after the abuse at home, Finney seems relatively safe during his initial confinement scenes. It is quickly apparently (though we don’t know quite why) that The Grabber will take his time, working his way toward whatever it is he plans to do. This somewhat vitiates the suspense in the mid-section of the film, when Gwen’s dreams and the ghostly interventions combine to create a sense that Finney’s escape is a near-inevitability. Still, you have to give the filmmakers credit for trying to slowly build suspense instead juicing things up with a murder every ten minutes (there is little lethal violence onscreen). Fortunately, the long wait pays off with a final act that recaptures the early intensity, as complications set in, finally triggering The Grabber homicidal rage.
Ethan Hawke is quietly intimidating as The Grabber, who is so in control of the situation that he seldom needs to act overtly intimidating. Occasional outrage and threats do erupt, but mostly he sounds like someone trying too hard to be ingratiating, his pseudo-friendly tone punctuated with odd giggles that are more creepy than amusing. Though he presents himself as a magician (his van is marked Abracadabra), he comes across like a demented clown, hiding his face throughout most of the film behind a grinning devil’s mask.
Rather like silent film star Lon Chaney playing the Phantom of the Opera, Hawk relies on off-kilter body language and to convey the madness hiding behind that mask, which is itself a thing of demented beauty. Co-designed by Tom Savini (who created makeup effects for George Romero’s films, such as 1978’s Dawn of the Dead), the mask is actually in two parts, top and bottom, with interchangeable expressions for the mouth – sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning. The Grabber’s shifting emotional states are conveyed not only by the mask’s expression but also by which part of it Hawk wears: sometimes both top and bottom; sometimes only the top, revealing the movement of his lips; sometimes only the bottom, revealing the expression of his eyes. These continual shifts keep Finney (and the audience) off balance – certainly the changes seem to mean something, but whether they bode well or ill for Finney’s approaching fate is unclear.
Mason Thames shines as Finney. The young actor has an intensity of expression that speaks to the resiliency his character needs to survive in his horrendous circumstances – both at home and in the Grabber’s basement dungeon. And Madeleine McGraw is a real hoot as Gwen, spilling expletives with the practice ease of an adult. Most of the supporting case is strong, too, particularly the victims, who have little screen time but still make strong impressions, in particular Miguel Cazarez Mora as Robin, a friend who teaches Finney to use a phone as weapon – a great scene that totally revs the audience up for the expected battle at the conclusion.
Lastly, we should note that, set as it is in the 1970s, The Black Phone strenuously evokes the vibes of that decade. The soundtrack is awash with music from the time: “Free Ride” by the Edgar Winter Group, “Fox on the Run” by Sweet, and best of all “On the Run” by Pink Floyd, an ominous instrumental track that substitutes for composer Mark Korven’s soundtrack score during one lengthy sequence in the dungeon. Yet somehow, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” (or, more appropriate for the ’70s, Elton John’s cover version) is not included, even though one of the Grabber’s victims is a young pinball-playing stud with whose denim vest and blond curls suggest a wannabe Roger Daltrey.
More important than this, the dialogue evokes films of the era, pointedly referencing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – which gives a solid idea where the filmmakers heads were at and what they were trying to achieve (down to the casting of Thames, whose appearance is eerily reminiscent of actors from that time that it felt as if we recognized him from one of those films). The Black Phone is not an old-school splatter-fest, but it does aim for the grim intensity of a ’70s drive-in movie. Fortunately for us, it is better than most of those ever were.
- One of these clues the Grabber leaves is black balloons, which seem to be a nod toward the memorable shot of a dead victim’s balloon in Fritz Lang’s M.
Our rating of The Black Phone
Grim, intense, and convincing, The Black Phone is an extremely effective horror-thriller that takes what seems like a mass of conflicting plot threads and weaves them together, creating a story that feels credible in spite of its supernatural and psychic elements. The film’s serial killer claims to be a magician, but the film’s biggest trick is making its plot twists seem not like random rabbits pulled from acts but like logical developments that make perfect sense to us – even when they lead to disastrous results for the characters.
The Black Phone (Universal Pictures & Blumhouse Productions2021). Directed b Scott Derrickson. Screenplay by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, from the short story by Joe Hill. Cast: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal, James Ransone, Miguel Cazarez Mora. Rated R. 103 mins. US release date: June 24, 2022.