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The Black Phone

(beware The Spoiler)

THE BLACK PHONE is a solid, straight forward horror tale set in a Denver suburb in 1979, when a succession of boys have gone missing. Locals blame it on someone they call “The Grabber.” The story centers on a kid named Finney (Mason Thames, young Walker in the new version of Walker: Texas Ranger), who’s either in middle school or high school (definitely pre-driver’s license age).

His life is not the easiest, but he gets by. He and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw, AMERICAN SNIPER) have to walk on egg shells around their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies, punk rock Toyota commercial) as well as various bullies closer to their own age. On Fridays Gwen sleeps over at a friend’s and Finney “takes care of” Dad – tucking him in and watching Emergency! by himself.

It’s a pretty tight movie, but I appreciate that it doesn’t rush the section where it establishes Finney’s daily life and the ominous mood of the place and time. One day there’s a fight outside of school, some big creep named Moose (J. Gaven Wilde, HALLOWEEN KILLS) calling a smaller kid named Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) a slur and taking a swing at him, at which point we learn that Robin is some kind of junior high Billy Jack who this kid absolutely should not have fucked with. Finney doesn’t know how to do that when he gets chased into the restroom by three dickheads, so it’s a relief when Robin walks in. Turns out they’re friends, though I get the sense it’s one of those friendships where one (Finney) is in awe of the other and feels surprised and lucky the guy even talks to him.

But The Grabber keeps grabbing. We’ll see some poor unsuspecting kid coming upon a black van, and then it fades to black, and then it’s the next day, the news spreads, and the flyers go up. First it’s Bruce Yamada (Tristan Pravong), a neighborhood hearthrob who hit a winning home run off of Finney in little league but then made his heart swell by complimenting him after the game. And then it’s Robin. And eventually, of course, it’s Finney.

The Grabber, as you probly know, is played by Ethan Hawke (VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS), an actor I admire for his contagious sincerity and ethic of going as hard in genre movies (DAYBREAKERS, THE PURGE, PREDESTINATION, 24 HOURS TO LIVE) as he does in more respectable ones (FIRST REFORMED). Director Scott Derrickson previously worked with him on SINISTER, which may be why he was willing to play I believe his first outright villain role (this was filmed before the Marvel show Moon Knight, which he was also evil and outstanding in).

Hawke gets an “and” credit and come to think of it he’s a presence in the movie more than he’s actually on screen. He drugs Finney, locks him in a dank basement, and has a few weird interactions with him, his odd delivery and gestures adding additional nightmare sauce to all the things we read into his simple dialogue. He pretends to be nice, eventually brings him breakfast (scrambled eggs and lemon soda), sits upstairs shirtless and manspreading wearing a crazy devil mask and holding a belt to beat him to death with if he tries to come up those stairs. Avoid this guy, in my opinion.

But Finney is locked downstairs in this dirty, sound-proofed room with a mattress, a toilet, a barred window that’s too high to reach, and the titular device, a rotary wall phone that’s disconnected but that the Grabber acknowledges sometimes, eerily, rings. The gimmick is that Finney starts to get calls from the Grabber’s previous victims, now deceased, giving him advice: there are some crumbling tiles in the corner you can dig into, try to find the cable I hid, don’t try the door it’s a trick, etc.

Meanwhile, the detectives on the Grabber case, Wright (E. Roger Mitchell, THE CRAZIES, NEED FOR SPEED, TRIPLE 9) and Miller (Troy Rudeseal, PIRATE KIDS II: THE SEARCH FOR THE SILVER SKULL), find out that Gwen knew something that was not publicly revealed about the crimes – because she had a dream about it. In defiance of her father, who blames the suicide of their mother on similar visions, she tries to decipher clues in her dreams to find where her brother is.

So even though it’s got that acrid taste of nostalgia tainted with true crime darkness, it’s not aiming for realism. Not only is it a supernatural story, but some of it seems to depict the world as it seems when you’re 13. I was much younger than these kids in ’79, but this movie features many concerns and feelings that I remember from childhood in the ‘80s. There’s the fear of mysterious kidnappers in scary vans, bigger kids that might give you bloody noses, mean dogs, mean parents, strange houses. There’s the humiliation of failure in sports. The thrill and terror of sitting next to the girl you like. NASA. Frog dissection. The legends of which kids in your school know how to fight, and the feeling it gives you when those kids are nice to you. In this case the tough kid is also the kid who tells you about the movies your parents won’t let you see (specifically THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and ENTER THE DRAGON).

It also has the kid at school you don’t know but know the name of, and the one you know the name of only because he died. Some kids from my middle school were jumping across rocks at Snoqualmie Falls when one slipped and got sucked in. I’d talked to him once when he complimented my Public Enemy t-shirt; most kids in my suburb did not know It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, and that was all I ever knew about him. That tiny connection haunted me, of course. A guy I had something in common with, one simple stumble, he disappears forever. That sort of feeling hovers over this whole movie.

The late ‘70s clothes and hair (plus a couple of needle drops) feel authentic without being overbearing. I know IT CHAPTER 1 took place nine years later, but it’s an obvious comparison – R-rated period horror movie about small town pre-driving-age teens abducted by a mysterious menace, and this is even adapted from a story by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill. Nothing against that ambitious attempt to adapt a fat ass novel, but I think simple short stories like this translate better (see also: THE NIGHT FLIER, THE MANGLER, HELLRAISER, CANDYMAN). They already have a strong concept and villain (I believe most or all of his dialogue is almost verbatim from the story) and they get to riff on it (more background on the other victims, the Gwen subplot greatly expanded from a small idea) and find ways to make it more cinematic (more phone calls, more complex escape plan, iconically creepy mask-wearing killer instead of just a fat guy named Al).

And by the way, the mask designs are credited to Tom Savini and Jason Baker (director of the documentary about Tom Savini).

Of course, the most fine tuned adaptation in the world could’ve crumbled without strong performances from the young leads. McGraw is great as the precocious (and sometimes foul-mouthed) sister and Thames is even better. He actually kind of reminds me of Hawke himself in EXPLORERS, though the character and situation are more dour. It’s a very interior performance, a kid who tries to keep his head up through alot of shit and then finally calls upon an inner strength he didn’t know he had.

(escalating spoilers for rest of review)

This is a scary story, but it’s an inspirational one. Child abduction conjures up grim imagery in our minds, and the things The Grabber says to Finney added to the implication of what he’s already done hits hard without showing him do anything very graphic. I suspect it’s intentional that the most painful part to watch is before the horror begins, when their dad is beating Gwen with a belt. Her crying is intense and Finney can only stand there, furious but helpless.

So we have this kid who has the cards stacked against him. His sister is his only support in the world. No mom, barely a dad. He knew two previous victims, Bruce and Robin, specifically for being more capable than him. If the most badass kid at school, his protector, couldn’t survive The Grabber, how the fuck is he supposed to do it?

The whole time he’s trying to escape you’re also watching these cops try to find him, and with the help of Gwen they’re heading in the right direction. But they only find the bodies, they don’t find the house. No one will show up to rescue him. He has to save himself. And he does. He does it by facing his fear and fighting hard and not giving up, and also by building off the escape attempts of the others before him, making it a victory for all of them.

The brother-sister relationship moved me. After Robin disappears and it’s open season on Finney, Gwen intervenes in a fight and bloodies one dude’s head with a rock. I think this is the only time I’ve seen a “sister helps brother fight bullies” scene where it’s not about causing further embarrassment – the gesture is appreciated. They’re in this together. Then she spends the movie trying to save him from something worse than a beat down, risking the wrath of their dad to do it. And she gets very close to finding him, in the process causing Dad to finally understand their mother.

There’s an interesting moment when the ordeal is over, Finney is being checked out by paramedics, and Dad runs to him, reminding us that this poor boy has escaped from that basement back to a not-great home life. Seeing his son safe with his daughter, Dad cries and apologizes and begs for forgiveness. It’s a complicated moment. It’s good that he shows remorse, and understands that he was wrong to punish Gwen for her vision, to fear her becoming her mom. But this ending would go down wrong if it seemed to be saying everything is fine now. I like that he stays on his knees and the scene ends on Finney and Gwen leaning against each other. That’s the family support that matters here.

Derrickson’s feature directorial debut was the first DTV HELLRAISER sequel, HELLRAISER: INFERNO, but he managed to climb the ladder of theatrically released studio horror (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, SINISTER, DELIVER US FROM EVIL) and then directed the first DOCTOR STRANGE. Like a couple of those he wrote this one with C. Robert Cargill, who was known as Massawyrm when he was a writer at The Ain’t It Cool News at the same time I was. We often did not see eye-to-eye back then, so I honestly wouldn’t be biased in his favor. But he absolutely deserves props for this one, and I really hope these two have more short story adaptations in their future.

p.s. I also want to briefly note the score by Mark Korven (CUBE, THE WITCH, RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY). It’s got some good creepy textures and then a few times it gets kinda synthy but in totally non-cliche way. That guy’s pretty good.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 27th, 2022 at 9:45 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “The Black Phone”

  1. Vern, you’ve done a much better job of explaining what’s appealing about this movie than any of the promotional materials I’ve seen. The basic premise of “kidnap victim gets creepy phone calls from dead people” sounds deadly dull to me, but the film you describe sounds so much better than that.

    Also, I am proud to say that my last novel features an extensive sequence in which my narrator is saved from a beatdown by his very pregnant younger sister, and he doesn’t feel humiliated at all.

  2. Really liked this one for being a solid, pretty direct story but also an inspirational one like you said, with some great characters done well by the cast. I do feel a LITTLE robbed that they didn’t show us more of the ordeal some of the other victims went through, particularly Robin and the pinball maniac guy. I find it hard to believe they’d go down without doing SOME damage to The Grabber, which actually could have been a nice little bit of visual storytelling, if he had scars of bruises from them. Also, one other thing that I feel kinda trips things up for me


    The Grabber’s brother feels kinda out of place and overly broad a character for the story being told, right? Like, the movie is actually surprisingly humorous in parts, but it’s in an unexpected dialogue/character moment type way, while this guy was definitely far more a designated comic relief character and was much more cartoonish. And it’s a bit hard to suspend disbelief with the idea that The Grabber could be doing all that shit under his nose, and that when the cops visit the house mid-way through the movie, Finney doesn’t hear all the activity outside through the now-open window. In fact, when they pan from the brother down to Finney, I didn’t immediately take that literally, because of all that.
    Also a smaller thing is early on, Grabber’s dialogue with Finney claiming not to be the guy who kidnapped the other kids and “I’ll explain everything to you” was a bit of an unnecessary distraction because it didn’t really serve any purpose or go anywhere. Like, maybe at least the Grabber had different personas based on his masks and the one being “nice” to Finney was subservient to the others and didn’t consider himself to be responsible for what happened? Maybe I just overthought it though. I’m way too aware of Law of Conservation of Detail to not read more into things like that than necessary.
    Pretty funny ending though in that killing someone in this world is like being a TEEN WOLF for your popularity in high school.

  3. Just came to from seeing this one. I tend to like Derrickson’s movies, and am a pretty big fan of Joe Hill, so I was cautiously optimistic despite the (to me) terrible trailers. This is a great review of a great movie.

    – The Blumhouse logo just keeps getting longer and cheesier as time goes by, and I love it.
    – Just about the only thing I didn’t really like were some stylistic choices (like the fade to black as other kids get taken), but they were all very Derrickson.
    – In the fight the sister intervenes in, I loved the bit where she plops down to sit by the kid with a headwound; it’s such a weird and… somehow true moment.
    – The Joe Hill story is a handful of pages long; extremely lean and to the point. I was afraid they’d wreck it by expanding it to feature length, but yeah, they did a great job. Funny that the extended material feels more like Stephen King than the his son… by the time some random teens get into a fight in a corner store and one pulls a switchblade- yeah, definitely King territory. Or the UK according to the Daily Mail. One of those two.
    – The kid is a legit great in the role. His sister is amazing, too, as long as she’s not cracking wise; didn’t really love the whole precocious/funny/cursing stuff, but that’s on the script, not on her… she pulled it off as well as anyone could have.
    – The whole running theme of victims banding together and giving each other support is great. It’s not in the original story IIRC and it’s one reason the added stuff at the beginning feels integral to the story.

    – [Spoiler] Loved how all the things the other kids told him about end up coming in useful in the end. I missed the grate from the window, though… is that what Hawke breaks his foot on? The steak made me laugh. Love me a clever script.

  4. The Dread Pirate Guac: The trailer was awful, wasn’t it? I’d been hearing about and getting mildly pumped up about this movie for what feels like years, and then the trailer looks like a deleted scene from a Tool video from 1993. What I’m getting from these reactions is that this is a movie that moves, that has action and heroism, dope 70s jams and dynamic characters, and the trailer makes it look like the most generic monochrome spooky house bullshit in the world. Oh no! Creepy sounds over an old landline! What a killer hook! I’m really glad there’s a lot more to the movie than that. I’m back to mildly pumped again.

  5. Mr. M: I think the director would be offended if you insulted the 90s alt-metal aesthetic – this is the guy that made Sinister, after all.

    But yeah, the trailers absolutely misrepresent the movie. It’s got a lot going on, and not all of it works, but it was much more heartfelt than I expected. Derrickson and Cargill make a really good team.

  6. I got no problem with the aesthetic, but a good trailer needs to be more than just an aesthetic, and that trailer offers absolutely nothing else. I’m sure the bits that are in the trailer work just fine as part of a story but not as a hook to make me want to watch more.

  7. Loved this. Spend time building good characters the audience cares for at the start of you horror movie. That always works, and is expertly done here.

  8. Holy shit, there was a kid who died at my school too. He was younger than me and it was Sunday school we shared, not regular school, but I remember hearing he was on a field trip, fell into a River and got smashed into rocks, they couldn’t save him. I didn’t really know him before but that always stuck with me that a parent could sign a permission slip and then something like that happens.

    His brother ended up working at the same movie theater as me when I was senior staff. Aside from training him I don’t remember talking much. We certainly didn’t talk about his brother at that point.

    But I hadn’t made that connection in The Black Phone. And obviously it wasn’t a serial kidnapper killer situation but you’re so right, there are variations on that that are universal.

  9. A kid in my school died too. Older brother of a kid in my class. Right around the corner from my house, in front of the funeral home that did his service a few days later. My class was coming back from a field trip on the bus and we saw him skateboarding around. The brother said “I hope he gets hit by a car.” And a little while later, he did. That fucked the brother up real bad. Started coming into sixth grade drunk. I think the family moved soon after so I never knew what happened to him.

    Both of them were handsome, confident, well liked. It was too much to understand at the time. Still not so easy now.

  10. STU –


    Yeah, I felt that way about the brother, too. I think the reveal that he’s been doing lines of coke is so supposed to explain why he’s acting like that, but it definitely comes across as comedic in a way nothing else in the movie does. I read the story after the movie so I noticed that both have the Grabber saying that the phone hasn’t worked since he was a kid, which I think indicates that this was his childhood home, right? But in the movie the visiting brother seems to consider it his place, not their childhood home. Weird. I thought that was one of the less successful parts of the story, but it happens in so few scenes that it didn’t bother me too much.

    And yeah, I didn’t want to go into that ending at school in the review since I already explained too much, but I think it’s the kicker that really brings it all home. It’s so funny and satisfying and a little fucked up but doesn’t seem too far fetched. Just perfect.

  11. (sorry about my profile picture – wordpress playing up and can’t change it!)

    I really enjoyed this and felt it was a major step-up for Derrickson, just on the level of, like, texture. There were techniques brought over from Sinister, but worked way better here. The kids were great – and I found the way Scott shot the ghosts really strangely moving. I think I found the execution a little better than the story – I should read some Hill though, interesting how King the story is, really funny seeing SK’s signature tropes turned into a kind of family business.

    There was a couple things I wished they’d changed to tighten it up a bit. I think you could drop the coke brother entirely as he just complicates the logistics of the story for no real reason, especially given how unsubtle the killer is, like sitting about belting kids in his kitchen. If i was doing a rewrite, I’d have been tempted to give his failed rescue and death to the dad character. Have the sister go to him rather than the police, maybe even make it ambiguous that she knew he was gonna be in danger or something, I don’t know. Really good film, but I really think it could’ve been tightened up, so hey-ho.

    And it also lands a bit oddly that they position the ‘two houses’ thing as a twist or surprise reveal, but it kind of changes absolutely nothing. I chuckled when the policeman addressed the press and the first thing he said about all this crazy shit that just happened was ‘he had two houses’. He had two houses!

    But tbf owning two houses and driving up suburban house prices is exactly the sort of sick psycho behaviour we should be warned about, so thank you Scott and Ethan and everyone.

  12. Totally off-topic, but I don’t like Michael Myers being in the new Blumhouse logo. I know you’ve put out some movies with him, but he’s not your fucking mascot. Slow your roll.

  13. I didn’t know about that but I agree! Why not use a mascot that haven’t been seen in a while? I’d like to see Cool Spot get some work.

  14. I would watch the next HALLOWEEN movie if Cobi would suddenly appear in the Blumhouse logo.

  15. These motion logos are always full of themselves and distractingly ineffective as opposed to engaging. I felt the same way when watching that Obi-Wan TV show and the new Star Wars logo tried to tell me some literal whos were on the same level of iconography as Darth Vader and R2D2.

  16. Can’t find it in me to get annoyed by something so crass and cheesy. They can put Myers there, it makes it a little more cringeworthy… I’m just a little disappointed they don’t have him running at the screen waving a broken fluorescent tube.

  17. Broddie- I at least appreciate that the figures used change and that the logo is acknowledging a wider aspect of Star Wars than just doing lightsaber shit as the franchise is becoming more and more Force-obsessed. Also it’s fairly short, unlike the Marvel Studios fanfare that has no business being put in front of TV shows.

  18. I’d heard good things about this one and caught it in streaming last night. My wife generally doesn’t go in for these kinds of movies, but by the end she was on the sofa next to me, engaged. I say that’s a recommendation.

  19. Finally caught up with this one. I think I’d have liked it better without its central premise. It seems like Joe Hill has inherited and even magnified his dad’s worst habits in terms of magical deus ex machinas. Like, we’re supposed to feel like this story is a gauntlet through which the protagonist must fight to become a man, right? Except, thanks to the title conceit, the kid isn’t actually the architect of his on destiny. He’s already got the Cliff’s Notes. And for me, that takes a lot of the urgency out of the story. I’d much rather have seen the story of this kid figuring all this stuff out on his own. The frustrations as ideas don’t work out, the a-ha moments when all the elements start coming together, and the final catharsis when the plan finally comes to violent fruition. He needed to earn these moments himself, but the plot just hands them to him. Generally, Stephen King does this kind of jiggerypokery with the psychic visions and the machinations of ka and the helping hand of the spectral interloper and whatnot in the back end of a novel after he’s written himself into a hole. His son seems to prefer to bake that stuff right into the premise. It’s a shame, because I like everything else about the movie. The performances are great, the dialogue lively, the pace spry (always a boon in a genre given to lethargy). All you gotta do is remove the movie’s hook and it’s a tight little survival procedural. This ghost shit makes it all a little too easy.

    Also how you gonna steal DAZED & CONFUSED’s Little League scene and then go right into “Slow Ride”? I feel like any song on that soundtrack should be off limits for any 70s period piece until the end of time. And this movie has two of them. You music directors need to do better.

  20. *SPOILERS* Yeah i guess that didn’t bother me that the hero basically gets handed the solution to everything – it seemed less like a lazy copout and more like a twist on the “poetic-justice ghost story” where the ghosts can’t physically get revenge on their killer, so they manipulate the protagonist into doing it for them. And I guess I enjoyed the rest of the movie enough that it worked for me.

    Majestyk – the funny thing though is am I the only one who thought for a second that Hawke was the one doing all the voices on the other line? I couldn’t tell if the movie wanted you to think that or not, but at times it totally sounded like a grown man talking in a kid voice, and some of the gibberish the kids said sounded suspiciously like him. (I mean the movie’s already implying he’s got Split-style multiple personalities) That kinda would have been a cruel twist that would piss off most of the audience wanting a supernatural horror movie, but it also would have left the protagonist exactly where you wanted him – realizing he can only rely on himself (and not his memories of kids he looked up to and idolized) to get the hell out of there. But oh well, I guess that’s not the story they decided to tell this time.

  21. That would have been a lot better. The Grabber leads the kid through a bunch of dead ends, but then he uses elements of each to construct his escape plan, thus using the Grabber’s cruelty against him. Much more elegant.

    I’d keep the sister’s visions. I like how they’re used as a red herring. You think she’s gonna save the day but then it’s not necessary. He gets out on his own. Two psychic Get Out Of Plot Free cards in the same movie is too many, in my opinion. I rarely like helpful ghosts anyway. Ghosts should stay scary.

  22. I get the complaints, but I liked it as is – the script does justify its approach. The ghost’s advice seems fallible at first, and the kid has to do enough of the work and goes through enough shit that the ending is earned. It makes sense thematically because there’s such an imbalance of power that it takes a collective effort to take down the grabber, and the kid is portrayed as overtly passive from the beginning – he’s been a victim for so long he needs to be pushed to fight back.
    Also yeah, at least a few of the ghosts aren’t doing it to help him, they’re using the kid to get revenge. Finney’s the first one that got more than a couple of days (because of the Grabber’s brother’s visit) so they have to make do.

    But it’s true that the friendly ghosts kinda remove the horror. It’d be a different movie, but a possible way to fix that would be to make the ghosts less helpful and more otherworldly/angry. This is the direction they actually go with at one point with the switchblade and paperboy ghosts, before they go full Casper again with the training montage. Finney being caught between a serial killer and hostile, crazed, angry ghosts that hold the key to get out… that’d be interesting. You’d need to find a theme to replace the whole victims banding together thing.

    The original story is ten, twenty pages long; IIRC there’s only one ghost and all he tells him to do is to fill the phone with soil and swing away. It’s fun, but very disposable.
    If you want a good Joe Hill ghost story I’d go with Heart-Shaped box; The ghost is a bit too J-horror in its descriptions, but other than that it’s a killer horror book that’s honestly as good as most stuff King’s written (and I say this as a fairly big Stephen King fan). I seriously don’t get how there’s no movie adaptation yet, it seems like a no-brainer.
    Horns is great as well, but no ghosts in that one.

  23. I did read HORNS and liked it. Haven’t watched the movie yet. Something about the premise seems palatable in prose but not cinema.

    I hesitate to offer this kind of “criticism,” which is really just saying “I wish they’d told a different story than the one they wanted to tell.” The story they wanted to tell was “What if the ghosts of a serial killer’s victims helped his latest victim escape?” That’s a perfectly fine story to tell. Unfortunately, in the finished film, the ghost stuff–the very hook of the movie–is by far the least interesting element, and, in my opinion, actively detracts from the interesting parts of the movie. That happens sometimes. The part that made you want to tell a story in the first place may, in the act of elaboration, become a kind of vestigial limb hanging off of an organism that has evolved beyond it.

    To quote a creator we’re all bashing/mourning in another thread: “If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favorite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.”

    Now, whether or not THE BLACK PHONE “works” is a matter of personal taste. I’d say it does work overall, but I think it would work better if it focused on its stronger aspects: The blue-collar 70s milieu, the strong performances, and the hero’s journey of the very relatable protagonist. The ghost stuff is a distraction from all that, despite being the seed from which the story was sprouted.

  24. Also, isn’t it weird that James Ransome seems to be making a career out of playing the way too broad comic relief character in adaptations of works by members of the King family? That’s a really specific niche but get in where you fit in, I guess.

  25. Yeah, Horns doesn’t really work. It does give it a honest try, though… enough to be pretty appealingly weird (directed by Alexandre Aja, who’s never afraid to make some weird-ass choices.)

    Re: Ransone – Ha! I kept remembering his character from Sinister, but yeah, that’s a fun link.

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