The Black Phone is a 2021 American supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, who both produced with Jason Blum.
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. A boy from another school that Finney knew, Bruce, is abducted by the Grabber. Gwen, who has psychic dreams much like her late mother, dreams of Bruce’s kidnapping. She 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’s ghost tells Finney about a floor tile he can remove to dig a tunnel to escape.
The police search for Finney is unsuccessful. 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.
Will Finney be just another victim or can he escape The Grabber’s basement?
When I discovered that The Black Phone was based on a story written by Joe Hill, all my problems with the movie made sense. Another recent adaption of his work, Locke & Key was similiarly very tame. Both to me feel as if they’re made for young adults, which I am not.
I watch horror to be entertained of course, but mainly to be horrified. You can’t have a film about a child killer without any child being killed. It’s insinuated and whispered about but The Grabber is shown to do less than Finney’s own father. I’m always of the mind of show, don’t tell. The Black Phone didn’t need to be a hugely gory movie, but just giving us something would be a start.
The most annoying aspect was that Ethan Hawke was incredible! The Grabber is unnerving and frightening, his masks showing a duality of character. But, he’s way too mysterious. I was interested in the details. Where does he go all day? How is he killing these boys? Why? It gives us nothing. Why does he physically transform sometimes? Why the mask? It had me creating my own narrative for him, which isn’t good enough.
As I said, The Black Phone is extremely tame. I feel it would fit best in the thriller genre. It’s very much a Hollywood movie in that way.
Don’t get me wrong, this film is tense and you root for Finney’s survival. The acting is top notch and the sibling relationship is solid, that is what holds it all together so well. However, they’re all dealing with breadcrumbs and trying to spin them into gold. They can only do so much with so little.
Finally, a core aspect of The Black Phone is the good ghost trope and I will always hate it.
Overall, The Black Phone could be so much more. With fantastic performances all round, all it needed was for them to delve into the finer details. It leaves you feeling dissatisfied. An enjoyable ride if you turn your brain off but once you start asking questions it falls apart and leaves far too many loose ends.
The Black Phone
The Final Score - 6/10