(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.