The Black Phone is a 2021 American supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson and stars stars Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, and Ethan Hawke. The Black Phone is about a child who after being kidnapped is able to communicate with the former captives of his abductor. The movie is based on the short story of the same name written by Joe Hill.
The movie begins in 1978, a serial child abductor nicknamed “The Grabber” prowls the streets of a Denver suburb. Siblings Finney and Gwen Blake live in the area with their abusive, alcoholic father. At school, Finney is frequently bullied and harassed. He has a friendship with a classmate, Robin, who fends off the bullies. One of Finney’s classmates, Bruce, is abducted by The Grabber. Gwen, who has psychic dreams much like her late mother, dreams of Bruce’s kidnapping and sees that he was taken by a man in a black van with black balloons. Detectives Wright and Miller interview Gwen but struggle to believe her claims. The Grabber abducts Robin, as well as Finney days later. Finney awakens in a soundproofed basement. On the wall is a disconnected black rotary phone that The Grabber says does not work. Later, Finney hears the phone ring and answers it. Bruce, unable to remember his own name or who he was when he was alive, tells Finney about a floor tile he can remove to dig a tunnel to escape. The Grabber brings Finney food and leaves the door to the basement unlocked. Finney prepares to sneak out but is stopped by another boy on the phone called Billy. He explains this is a game that The Grabber plays, and he is waiting upstairs to attack Finney with a belt if he leaves the basement. Billy instructs him to use a cord Billy found to get out via the basement window. While climbing Finney breaks the bars on the window, preventing him from climbing back up. Gwen dreams of Billy being abducted and confides in her father about what is happening.
Wright and Miller speak to an eccentric man called Max who is staying in the area with his brother. It is revealed Finney is being held in Max’s basement, of which he is unaware, and The Grabber is his brother. After an agitated exchange with The Grabber, where he tests Finney’s honesty, he makes it seem as if he would have let Finney go. Finney speaks to another one of his victims, Griffin, on the phone. Griffin shows Finney a combination to a lock and informs him The Grabber has fallen asleep upstairs. Finney sneaks upstairs and unlocks the door but The Grabber’s dog alerts him to Finney’s escape. Finney flees down the street but is recaptured. Upset over his failed escape attempt, Finney answers the phone to hear another victim, a boy called Vance whom Finney was scared of. Vance informs Finney of a connecting storage room he can escape through if he breaks a hole in the wall and exits through the freezer on the other side of the wall. Finney creates a hole with a toilet tank cover and enters the back of the freezer only to discover that the freezer door is locked. The phone rings one more time with Robin at the end of the line. He comforts Finney and encourages him to finally stand up and fight for himself. He instructs Finney to remove the phone receiver and pack it with the dirt he had dug up to use as a weapon.
Gwen dreams of Vance’s abduction and discovers the property of The Grabber. She finds the house and contacts Wright and Miller. Max realizes Finney is being held in the house and rushes to the basement to free him, but his brother kills him with an axe. The police rush to the house Gwen found but find it abandoned. In the basement, they find the buried bodies of The Grabber’s victims. The Grabber attacks Finney with the axe, but Finney manages to trip the Grabber with the cord, causing him to fall into the tunnel Finney dug, where the Grabber breaks and traps his ankle in the window bars placed at the bottom. The ghosts taunt The Grabber over the phone before Finney breaks his neck with the phone cord, killing him. Finney distracts the guard dog with meat from the freezer and escapes the house using the combination he learned. Finney exits the house across the street from the gravesites where he reunites with Gwen and the police rush to the property.
Some of the creative decisions taken by Derrickson make for a truly unique and visceral viewing experience, and nothing embodies that better than those grainy Super 8 flashback sequences featured in the film, which bring to mind the disturbingly hellish snuff videos of 2008’s Sinister, also directed by Derrickson. What differs however from Sinister and is praiseworthy in its own right, is how the same method was effectively employed in two different movies to elicit completely different emotional responses from the audience. True, the overall creep factor is present in both scenarios, but what they are trying to achieve couldn’t be more different from each another. Where one is used to horrify audiences and go through horrifying experiences like the victims (Sinister), the other is used as a tool of hope to give clue about how the kidnapping victims were taken and where Finney was, ultimately leading his sister to find him (The Black Phone).
Violent high-school encounters, ugly domestic disputes and abuse hurling adolescents are all commonplace in 1970s America or it so feels from the film. The world crafted by Derrickson feels so immersive and real, that you can almost feel the grime under the fingernails, the dried bloodstains on the curb. Aesthetically, it’s not too dissimilar from David Fincher’s Zodiac. The pacing is pitch perfect, giving us the audiences, enough and more time to connect with the story’s characters and understand their motivations and why they do the things they do. The performances across the film are simply phenomenal with the clear standouts being Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and of course, Ethan Hawke. Thames and McGraw’s relationship, as brother and sister, is simply beautiful to behold and their chemistry is undeniable. Now, what can be said about Ethan Hawke? The veteran actor is certainly a treat to watch here. He is diabolical, utterly terrifying but at the same time very human and not some overwhelming force of nature or anything supernatural. It’s not over-the-top nor is it understated. His performance has the right amounts of all the right elements, and that’s what makes it work.
Hawke’s Grabber is characterized by personality reversal. His faking disposition towards being jolly flaunts animated mannerisms and a high-pitched voice. It’s eerily childlike, hitching itself to a suggestion of trauma-based age regression behavior, and juxtaposing with the adult-like profanity and maturity with which the kids speak. But the zany harlequin act is fleeting, leaving Finney at the mercy of a total change: a husky, deep tone of voice and unforgiving, violent demeanor. It’s in these moments where Hawke flexes his performance and versatility. His villainy is unpredictable and volatile. He expertly tiptoes a dissonant line of sprightly youthfulness and depravity. Switching on a dime, and with a mask covering the lower half of his face for most of the film, his acting relies on body language and the emotive flickers of his eyes. Hawke, having played “good” characters in his past roles was understandably reluctant to take on a negative role but his performance is perfect and couldn’t have been acted out better.
The Black Phone works as a thriller that manages to pack equal amounts of scares and substance. Watch for Ethan Hawke’s brilliant turn as The Grabber.