SPOILERS AHEAD for The Black Phone. You’ve been warned.
It seems like everywhere you turn these days, everything’s gone retro. The ’70s and ’80s are seriously in your face, whether it’s food, music, clothes or cars – but the chief driver of the retro steamroller is definitely movies and TV. Series like Stranger Things and flicks like It have all brought the ’70s and ’80s back in a big way. And the retro train shows no signs of slowing down, as the new horror flick The Black Phone adds to the mix.
Based on author Joe Hill‘s short story, The Black Phone, takes place in 1978 in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Denver. The story centers on an average kid named Finney (Mason Thames). It all starts with a baseball game, where Finn shows off his considerable pitching ability, almost striking out batter Bruce (Tristan Pravong). But it’s not to be, as Bruce hits a home run on the last pitch and wins the game. Finn’s naturally upset, but Bruce makes him feel better by telling him how good his arm is and how he almost had him.
Finn and his spunky, foul-mouthed – and not to mention clairvoyant – sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) live a pretty rough life, being the kids of an alcoholic single father (Jeremy Davies) who takes his frustrations out on them. When they’re not being yelled at or beaten – there’s a disturbing scene of him beating Gwen with a belt as punishment for using the supernatural abilities her deceased mother gave her – they’re taking care of him.
And at school, bullies are everywhere, just waiting to pounce on fresh meat like Finn. Luckily for him, though, a tough kid named Robin (Miguel Cazares Mora) – who we get to see beating the absolute cr*p out of one of the biggest bullies – comes to Finn’s defense when a trio of bullies corner Finn in the bathroom. It turns out Finn helps Robin with his math homework, so they’re buddies – but Robin warns him that he must start learning how to stand up for himself.
It’s foreboding advice, as there’s a terror far worse than schoolyard bullies invading the neighborhood. A child predator known only as “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) has boldly kidnapped several kids in broad daylight – kids who’ve never been seen again. Batter Bruce becomes the latest victim, and the local police (E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudesear) are at such a loss for leads that they actually start taking hints from Gwen’s psychic visions. She’s been having dreams about the Grabber and his victims – dreams that give her clues, like the black van and the black balloons the Grabber uses to lure the kids in.
It isn’t long before the Grabber strikes again and kidnaps Robin this time. And without his buddy around to help him, the bathroom bullies corner Finn and beat the snot out of him. Even Gwen’s best try at helping Finn can’t save him, as she viciously knocks one of them out with a rock. But there’s a silver lining for Finn when the science class lab partner (Rebecca Clarke) he’s crushing on tells him everybody’s heard about his beatdown, and she thinks he’s brave.
But then, on his way home, Finn runs into a black van, and the driver drops his groceries all over the sidewalk. The driver introduces himself as a magician and asks if Finn wants to see a magic trick. And then, with a barrage of black balloons and some kind of chemical spray to knock him out, Finn becomes the Grabber’s newest victim. He takes Finn to his house and puts him in the basement. When Finn wakes up, the Grabber, wearing a frightening mask, tells Finn he has no plans to hurt him – but given his track record, we know it’s a lie.
And here’s where we spend most of the flick, with Finn in the nasty, soundproofed dungeon. He tries his best to find some way out, even managing to pull the cover from the only window high up in the wall. But he still can’t get out, and Mason Thames does an excellent job of showing Finn’s growing terror and helplessness with each passing hour.
But then something happens – the phone on the wall that the Grabber insists is dead and is indeed disconnected starts ringing. At first, Finn hears nothing but static, but it isn’t long before he hears voices – voices he soon recognizes as the Grabber’s other victims. The ghost boys do their best to help Finn escape, even though their own memories are quickly fading. One of them tells Finn he can try digging underneath some broken tile and tunnel through the foundation. Another tells him he can bash his way through the wall and get into the freezer on the other side.
And another, paperboy Billy (Jacob Moran), helps Finn avoid a trap when the Grabber leaves the basement door unlocked accidentally-on-purpose. In probably his scariest scenes, Ethan Hawke’s masked Grabber sits patiently waiting for Finn to appear, with a belt in hand. Ghost Billy tells Finn it’s the game he plays – called “Naughty Boy.” But Finn’s got a chance – the Grabber hasn’t been sleeping. So when he inevitably passes out in the chair, Finn can sneak past him and undo the lock on the door, which was Billy’s bike lock – and he left the combination scrawled in the basement wall. Finn manages to get out and make a run for it – and he screams loud enough to wake some of the neighbors – but the Grabber tackles him and puts a knife to his throat. He’s caught. Again.
And while all this is going on, Gwen’s been trying to milk her dream-visions for everything she can get out of them. She prays to God to send her more clues that actually make sense, and when it doesn’t happen, she gives God an angry and hilarious foul-mouthed verbal beatdown, which seems to work, because she then has visions of a house and a number scrawled into someone’s arm. Gwen goes riding out in the rain, desperately searching for the house – which she finds when she has a vision, all the dead boys suddenly standing in her way.
The inept police detectives follow Gwen’s lead to the house she saw – but it’s not the house where Finn is. Instead, they find the buried bodies of the other victims in the basement. And as for Finn, his time’s run out – as the Grabber’s oblivious. Cokehead brother Max (an all-too-brief appearance by the incredible James Ransone) follows his conspiracy theories about the Grabber to his own basement – where he finds Finn. But before he can do anything, the Grabber takes out his brother with an ax to the head. Yikes.
Before all that happens, though, Finn gets one last call on the black phone from Robin. He psyches Finn up for the fight of his life, training him by telling him to fill the phone receiver with dirt to give it weight and make it a weapon. Robin trains him on how to move, fight and stand up for himself like he told him before that he would have to. And Finn finally gets up the courage to go up against the Boogeyman, the ultimate bully – and win. Finn staggers out of the house, which turns out to be the house across the street from where the victims were buried and is reunited with Gwen and their remorseful father.
When I first heard about this flick, I was psyched to learn that director Scott Derrickson was reuniting with co-writer C. Robert Cargill and Ethan Hawke – the same team that gave us Sinister, one of the best horror flicks in recent years. The Black Phone certainly uses some of the same stylistic touches – that bleached-out Super-8 film look with the story’s jump cuts and the ’70s and ’80s placement. And thanks to the incredible masks designed by horror legend Tom Savini, Hawke’s Grabber shares the same frightening countenance as Sinister’s demon Baghuul.
What it doesn’t share, though, is the horror – or at least not the same kind of hardcore horror that Sinister portrayed so boldly. You quickly learn from watching The Black Phone that it’s not nearly as much about the scary serial killer’s actions as it is about the horror of what average people do to each other. A major down-and-dirty mean streak runs through the flick as we watch the severe, bloody beatings to which the kids subject each other. And the scene where Finn and Gwen’s dad beat Gwen with the belt, and she continues to fiercely fight him, has got to be one of the hardest scenes to watch.
The other thing The Black Phone is about is Finney and his struggle to find his own identity, his own strength. Mason Thames has an incredible weight on his shoulders as much of the flick’s time is spent watching him in this minimalist setting – it’s just him and his performance that carries us through, and he does a fantastic job. But Ethan Hawke’s Grabber isn’t used to his greatest potential – he’s more of a guest star, and you find yourself longing to see more of him, to know more about him.
And unfortunately, all the disparate elements that make up The Black Phone just don’t come together as well as they should. There’s a smooth flow that should be there but isn’t. It’s clunky and doesn’t really deliver on the goods you expect from a good horror flick, even though it’s got some good jump scares. The Black Phone feels a lot more like a sketch of a bigger project – and even as creepy and gritty as it is, inevitably, it keeps it from being truly great.
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Joe Hill (short story)
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Run Time: 1 hr, 43 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures