Movie Curiosities: The Black Phone
The Black Phone is a low-budget horror movie with one or two big names attached, so of course it’s another fucking Blumhouse release. This one comes to us from the creative team of director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill, both producing and adapting a short story by Joe Hill.
Apparently, Derrickson and Cargill had already been working on the project long enough that they were ready to get it underway the very instant Marvel decided to take their Doctor Strange sequel in a different direction. (And in fairness to Marvel, look how that ended up!) This project sees them reunite with their old Sinister headliner Ethan Hawke, conveniently at the time when Hawke decided to switch things up and try his hand at villainous roles. And judging from how the past six months have been for his career, I’d say that’s working out pretty darn well so far.
Our stage is set in a rural Colorado suburb, circa 1978. Ethan Hawke plays a psychopath known only as “The Grabber”, responsible for no less than five kidnapped children in the past few weeks, all within the same district. But because the local cops (here played by E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal) are a load of bumbling idiots too incompetent to find their own asses with both hands and a flashlight, they’re hopelessly incapable of coming up with any leads or suspects.
Our protagonist is Finney Shaw (newcomer Mason Thames), alongside little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). The two of them are surprisingly close for a couple of grade-school siblings, mostly through the shared trauma of living with an alcoholic, violent, manipulative, abusive, all-around shitheel father (played by Jeremy Davies). It’s worth adding that their mother was purportedly a psychic right up until she killed herself.
Anyway, Gwen has recurring dreams that turn out to be uncomfortably close to reality, but she’s kept in perpetual fear of disclosing them for fear of turning out like her mother. (Again, that’s her father talking.) As for Finney, he’s a perpetual bully target, taking punches and kicks from all the other kids, but too afraid to throw a punch himself.
Inevitably, Finney gets picked up by the Grabber and locked in a soundproof basement. But curiously, the Grabber doesn’t seem to have any interest in killing or torturing Finney. He simply keeps the boy locked up in the basement for unknown reasons. Things get even stranger when a black phone in the basement — the one that’s reportedly been stuck on the wall and broken beyond use since the Grabber was himself a boy — starts ringing.
Apparently, Finney is the only one who could ever hear the phone ringing. And he’s the only one who can hear the voices on the other end. Those voices, incidentally, belong to all the other kids the Grabber has previously kidnapped and killed. The previous kids have all made their own attempts at escaping and of course they all have a vested interest in making sure Finney survives, so they provide Finney with the clues and exploits they discovered during their time in the basement.
Trouble is, it bears remembering that all five of those kids eventually wound up dead. Thus Finney is left with five plans that don’t work. So it is that Finney has to take every clue left behind by all five of the previous victims and put them together in a novel way that will eventually get him out. Of course, it would also help if Finney discovered the courage to confront the Grabber directly. If Gwen grows confident enough to trust and disclose her visions of Finney’s disappearance, so much the better.
It bears emphasizing that we’ve got a Joe Hill adaptation making heavy use of two particular horses long since beaten to death by Hill’s father: Alcoholism and bullies. Indeed, one feeds into the other as alcoholism drives Finney’s dad to become a terrible bully. More importantly, the film was built from the ground up around the theme of bravery and finding the courage to stand up to bullies. I might question the wisdom of making a kid-centered movie about that particular theme and then making it into an R-rated horror flick, but it’s nonetheless a soft R that would be suitable for any teenagers comfortable with filthy language. (But I repeat myself.) And anyway, looking at the state of the world right now, I’d say there are quite a few adults who could use a reminder that standing up to bullies remains a necessity after high school.
Moving on to the horror element, the basic nature of the premise means that the mortal peril is a slow burn. We only have the one protagonist and he’s stuck in a miniscule basement, so he can’t be in too much trouble too early on or it’d be an even shorter movie. Thus it’s mostly about the setups and payoffs. We’re watching to see how the clues will reveal themselves, how far Finney will get with any of his potential escape plans until he has to cut bait, and how all of this will inevitably pay off in some clever way during the climax. Without spoiling too many surprises, it all works delightfully well.
We do get a healthy dose of jump scares, but with a twist. By nature of the supernatural element, the vast majority of jump scares comes from the ghosts of the dead children. The same ones that are trying to help Finney. But at the same time, there’s a lot about the nature of these particular ghosts that remains unknowable, they’re horrifying on a purely aesthetic level, and the timing of their appearance could charitably be called “unreliable”. The upshot is the initial shock of seeing something unexpected and terrifying, followed by a second to cool down before curiosity settles in and we can see what it is they want. The Sixth Sense featured a similar kind of horror subversion, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it since, and I’ve certainly never seen it done better.
But then we have the Grabber. I’ve got so many mixed feelings about this guy.
First off, Ethan Hawke is acting his heart out here. Because he goes through pretty much the entire film wearing a mask, he more than compensates for the lack of facial expression with his body language and voice performance. Moreover, I’ll readily admit that the mask is a fascinating visual gimmick the character badly needed. After all, anyone even remotely familiar with the “Friday the 13th” franchise can tell you that a mask is instantly iconic and memorable while no mask isn’t either.
On the other hand, I’m disappointed that the film didn’t go into greater detail regarding the method to his madness. We barely get even the slightest hint as to what motivates the Grabber, why he kidnaps and murders kids on a constant basis, what’s with the masks, and so on. Given how much detail went into crafting the masks and how much effort Hawke is putting into this performance, there’s definitely a huge sense of untapped potential there. And of course we can’t forget that the Grabber’s crimes are the single most imperative driving force behind the plot, thus the motivation behind those crimes is kind of a massive fucking blind spot.
Then again, there’s an argument to be made that the Grabber is really only important as a homicidal kidnapper. It reduces the antagonist to a mere plot device instead of a fleshed-out character, but still. In terms of plot and theme, all that really matters about the Grabber is that he’s the ultimate bully for Finney to learn how to defeat. As with so many bullies, Grabber doesn’t necessarily need a deeper motivation to make other people miserable, and understanding any such motivation probably wouldn’t be of any help in stopping the threat. And anyway, it’s undeniably true that the air of mystery makes the Grabber that much more sinister.
I would also admit that any unnecessary exposition or character development would be unsightly baggage on what’s otherwise a tight and lean 100-minute thriller. And yet the film goes to great lengths in making sure we know all about Finney’s father and what drives him to be such an abusive parent. We know more about Finney’s father — a figure with maybe five minutes of collected screen time, with virtually zero direct impact on the plot — than we do about the chief antagonist. That feels backwards to me.
Oh, and on a final miscellaneous note, no way could I ignore the scene in which the cops burst into a house without any probable cause or warrant. It’s a flagrant and outrageous act of dramatic license and/or unconstitutional search and seizure, and the only reason I’m letting it slide is because these particular cops had already been so firmly established as hopelessly incompetent dolts.
Ultimately, it’s a spirited performance from Mason Thames that makes The Black Phone worth watching. Our lead character may be stock, but Thames sells his development every step of the way. It certainly helps that he’s got a passionate scene partner in Ethan Hawke, and Finney’s phone conversations with the ghosts are genuinely moving. This is a film that gets by on heart, right on through to a climax more than visceral and creative enough to pay off the rest of the runtime.
I don’t know if this is a movie that necessarily demands the big screen treatment and ticket prices, but I wholeheartedly recommend the film for home viewing. That said, Derrickson has already gone on record stating that the filmmakers are standing by with an idea for a sequel. That’s enough to make me recommend a big-screen viewing to get the box office grosses up, because I’m dying to know where the hell anyone could possibly go from here.
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1 thought on “Movie Curiosities: The Black Phone”
Indeed. Don’t get me started on that. Bullies are everywhere – in business, in sports, show business, politics. It doesn’t end with high school, and never has.
The movie does sound interesting, though yes, I can certainly see both sides of the argument involving whether the Grabber’s character should have been fleshed out enough. The drunken abusive parent thing is a trope that was done to death in the 90’s and early 2000’s, but it sadly does have some truth in it as people like that actually exist. Though in movies, TV, and comics it’s become sort of a storytelling shorthand for ‘character has a troubled family life’ and only occasionally is it given more depth or coverage (such as the drunken parent going into rehab and getting the help they need).