Movies: The Black Phone (2021)

Back when I still had an AMC Stubs membership (which I had to cancel because I couldn’t really afford it anymore and I moved way farther away from the movie theater anyway so could never go), I must have seen the trailer for The Black Phone every single time I went to the movies. It seemed like it was teased forever; it was actually pushed back several months, having first been scheduled for wide release in late January of 2022, then getting delayed until summer, which is probably why I had the perception that the thing was never gonna come out, but when it finally did, I never got to the theater to see it (again, too far to drive), so I had to wait for VOD. And then I kinda forgot about it until I was scrolling through Amazon Prime the other day and noticed it had popped up there, and I admit I was pretty excited because the trailer to the thing had looked pretty fucking good.

Released by Blumhouse and directed by Scott Derrickson (the man responsible for the excellent horror films Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, as well as the first Dr. Strange movie from 2016), The Black Phone was based on a 2004 short story by Joe Hill, who as most everyone knows is Stephen King’s son. And indeed, The Black Phone does have a veneer of what could be termed Stephen Kinginess—abusive alcoholic dads, copious bullying, and kids with psychic powers—but it also has its own thing going on, and I have to say, the downbeat 1970s vibe of the thing was one of my very favorite things about it. The trailer gave a lot of the story away, unfortunately, but I think the movie didn’t really suffer overall as a result of that, because even though The Black Phone isn’t a masterpiece or anything, it does have a lot more interesting layers and a better-thought-out structure than many “mainstream” horror films do. It also went much darker than I was expecting, just in terms of showing child abuse and bullying in a really grounded and harshly realistic way.

Ethan Hawke got most of the marketing attention I guess, and I’m not going to complain too much about that because his performance here is pretty great, but the story really belongs to the kid characters and focuses on their struggles; Ethan Hawke’s child killer doesn’t have nearly as much screen time and doesn’t really even feature to any significant degree until about forty minutes in. This is a horror movie, sure, but to be honest, I feel as though it’s probably more of a thriller or a dark coming-of-age drama with some horror and supernatural elements. Don’t go into this expecting it to be a straight-up slasher flick or something like that, in other words; one review I read called it Silence of the Lambs meets The Sixth Sense, which isn’t a perfect comparison but is definitely in the same ballpark.

The story is set in Denver, Colorado in 1978 and centers mainly around a boy named Finney Blake (Mason Thames), his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and their abusive father Terrence (Jeremy Davies), whose alcoholism and violence have only increased since his wife committed suicide sometime before.

As if the kids don’t have it bad enough getting their asses horribly beaten at home, they’re also the target of bullies at school, and because this film is set in the 1970s, the bullying does absolutely go there: these kids beat the absolute crap out of each other, and not much is done about it by anyone’s parents or other people in authority. Finney is friends with a tough kid named Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who at one point pummels an asshole older kid into unconsciousness and then just keeps on beating for good measure, and we never see the kid get into any trouble. In fact, he tells Finney not long after this incident, when Finney has expressed his discomfort at how far the fight went, that Finney is eventually going to have to learn to stand up for himself and for others, and intimates that sometimes in regards to bullies, you have to draw a lot of blood in order to make an impression.

This theme of savagery and cycles of abuse is pretty prevalent all throughout the movie, in fact; I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s heavy-handed, but it’s definitely not subtle. It’s established almost from the beginning that Finney’s character arc is going to involve him having to fight for survival and learn to ultimately stand up for himself, not only by defeating the main villain, but also by breaking the cycle of abuse engendered by his father’s treatment of him and his sister.

In the area where Finney lives, an elusive killer nicknamed The Grabber has been snatching boys off the street, and numerous urban legends have begun to spring up about him, including ones that are more supernatural in nature, such as the belief that if you say his name, he can hear you and will come after you next. While there is supernatural stuff going on in this movie, though, it’s never made clear if the killer has any kind of abilities in that direction, although the victims most certainly do.

In fact, Finney’s sister Gwen often has dreams that seem more like visions, and ever since the abductions began, she’s been having these disjointed nightmares that seem to provide clues about the case. Because she told the sister of one of the kidnapped boys that she had dreamed about the missing boy and saw some black balloons, the police come to her school to question her, since the black balloons detail was something they hadn’t released to the public. The cops don’t believe her about her dreams and wonder if she might know more about the crimes than she’s letting on, but she claps back at them pretty harshly, taunting them for possibly believing that she might be the killer.

Gwen, in fact, is a fantastic character, a smart-mouthed little badass who is absolutely not afraid to stand her ground and tell people to their faces that they’re full of shit. In that way, she’s like a counterpoint to her more subdued, fearful brother, who desperately wants to intervene when he sees other people being hurt, but is afraid to. Gwen too, incidentally, is usually beaten by her father for talking about her psychic abilities, as these remind him of his late wife, who also had dreams and visions which may have been a factor in her suicide. There is one scene fairly early on in the movie, as a matter of fact, where Gwen’s dad just whips the fuck out of her, and it’s brutal and real, and very upsetting to watch. The acting work is good all around, but Madeleine McGraw and Jeremy Davies are absolutely incredible in that sequence; it actually made me really uncomfortable because of how genuine it seemed.

Anyway, The Grabber—known only as an “amateur magician” driving a black van—snatches a few kids off the street, including Finney’s friend Robin, the toughest kid in school. Finney is horrified by this, because if Robin could be taken, then anyone could. And at about the forty-minute mark of the film, after all the character setup has been done, the inevitable happens and Finney is himself captured by The Grabber, who throws him in a basement with only a bed, and a non-functional black phone hanging on the wall.

The Grabber’s interest in the boys he takes isn’t overtly sexual, but in a parallel with Finney’s own father, The Grabber feels the need to punish the children for their transgressions, playing a game that he calls “Naughty Boy.” In essence, he leaves avenues of escape open to the boys, seemingly out of carelessness, but it’s all part of the game; he actually wants the boys to “misbehave,” so he can beat and kill them, and perhaps feel justified in doing so. The Grabber is never actually given a back story, which some reviewers liked and some didn’t; I tend to fall on the side of liking that his background was kept a mystery, because it made him scarier, and made you the viewer have to deal with the killer on the same terms as his victims would. There are little hints given as to why The Grabber is the way he is—the rotating series of masks he wears that convey his moods, for example—but that’s all they are, hints, and I thought this made the movie stronger because I’m almost always an advocate of not overexplaining your villains’ motivations.

Once Finney realizes what’s happened, he almost immediately becomes resigned to his fate; if none of the other boys escaped, he reasons, then what chance does he have? But soon enough, the supernatural intervenes: the nonworking black phone on the wall starts to ring, and when Finney answers it, he receives messages from the spirits of the murdered boys before him, who tell him of their own experiences and give him advice on how to survive.

Meanwhile, a desperate Gwen is deliberately trying to have visions that will save her brother, but for a long time, her prayers go unanswered. When she finally does begin to dream of him, the details are frustratingly sketchy, but eventually, she begins to piece together enough actionable information to take to the cops, who slowly start to take her gift more seriously.

As I said, The Black Phone isn’t the best horror movie ever, and it’s not even particularly scary…it’s creepy, for sure, but it’s not outright frightening the way Sinister was. But it’s a very solid dark drama with a horror flavor; Ethan Hawke is wonderfully unsettling as The Grabber, menacing and awkward in equal measure, despite almost never showing his face. The kid actors are also phenomenal, which goes a long way toward winning the audience’s sympathies. Additionally, the structure of the film is very well considered, drawing parallels between Finney’s abuse at the hands of his father and his bullies, and his growth toward finding the inner strength necessary to defeat The Grabber. The movie also just looks cool, with that dour 70s appearance intercut with the slightly unreal Super 8 footage that represents Gwen’s visions. Though I liked the movie just fine while I was watching it, thinking about it afterward gave me a deeper appreciation of its themes and plot construction, so I ended up liking it even more in retrospect, if that makes any sense.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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