None of the most terrifying and disturbing creations brought to life in books, movies, and other media, come close to the horrors our world offers. In Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone, these real-world horrors are explored with a touch of the supernatural.
Based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, a young boy named Finney (Mason Thames) is kidnapped by “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke). The bogus magician lures his child victims into his van with the promise of a magic trick. Soon after being taken, Finney finds himself trapped in a decrepit room with nothing at his disposal except a broken rotary phone. The phone, however, begins to ring with calls from otherworldly souls, with each offering a part of the solution to escape.
The elements for a solid horror movie are all there. The Grabber hides his face with a creepy mask that can be tailored and changed to fit any expression. Apparitions of dead children lurk in dark corners, and visions of their mutilated bodies appear in frame without warning. The titular black phone is dreary in appearance and creates a few jump scares when it unexpectedly rings. However, the true horror lies in the terrible realities Finney must face on a daily basis.
Before being kidnapped, Finney endured countless horrors at the hands of an abusive father and bullying classmates. He copes with the death of his mother and with the news that kids from his neighborhood have gone missing. In one of the few light-hearted moments, Finney also experiences the “horror” of talking to your school crush. Thames plays his character with vulnerability but resolve, a logical choice given the character’s storyline. In the midst of all this darkness, Finney finds light and consolation with his sister Gwen, played by Madeline McGraw. She is a firestorm of a character, ready to take the fight to whoever wants it (police officers and Jesus included).
Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill do an excellent job of giving depth to the relationship between the siblings. They look out for and care about one another. Each take turns caring for their father, showing the maturity that many adults in the film do not possess. With everything they have been through, they share a powerful emotional bond that provides the movie with much heart.
Having the story take place in a sleepy town in Colorado during the 1970s is also particularly effective. Even with more and more children disappearing, the town becomes no less sleepy; kids going missing seems to be the way of life. This detail reflects the modern-day nonchalance of ongoing problems in the world. Furthermore, the filmmakers do not offer a backstory for The Grabber, nor do they offer an explanation for his motives. Kidnappings just happen; the who and why remain largely unknown most of the time. Hawke does an effective job playing the sick kidnapper, giving the character a complex personality that ranges from childlike innocence to psychotic anger, all while only using his eyes to display emotion for most of the film.
The Black Phone shows that horror exists in many shapes and forms. It sheds light on the bleak realities that many children face every day. But it also offers hope and communicates a clear message. At its core, the movie is about resiliency and redemption. It is about answering a call to action. Just when it seems that Finney is ready to give in to his new reality, he receives new calls from his numinous companions imploring him not to quit. Gwen is unwavering in her attempts to decipher the clues of her brother’s whereabouts provided by her dreams, even though she feels her prayers may seem to go unanswered. They continue to fight, even though the odds are stacked against them. Ultimately the movie dials H for hope and begs the question: what horrors can we overcome if we all come together and answer the call to action?