Based on the Joe Hill short story of the same name, The Black Phone concerns the Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a serial child-snatcher who is characterized by his terrifying variety of masks and eerily flamboyant mannerisms. From the same mind behind Horns, and with its trailer highlighting the distinctly supernatural undertone to its horror premise, many wrote The Black Phone off prematurely. However, those that did so were very, very wrong.
Following Finney Blake (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) as they endure regular abuse from their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) and school bullies alike, The Black Phone begins with the Grabber local profile expanding. Establishing Finn as a child reluctant to fight back against the many people in his life seeking to harm him, the dynamic between the two Blake children is slowly and tentatively explored through subtle visual and subtextual moments. Put simply, the siblings rely on one another for support as a survival mechanism.
However, when Finn is taken by the Grabber, Gwen’s psychic dreams push her to desperation as she frantically attempts to find her brother. Meanwhile, Finn’s imprisonment in the Grabber’s soundproofed basement dungeon sees him hear from previous victims via a disconnected phone, implying that he too possesses some psychic ability. Forced to confront the idea that he will need to fight back against his abductor, Finn must also overcome the abuse he’s suffered throughout his life, and that’s where The Black Phone really sets its hooks deep.
Actually showing a scene of physical abuse taking place in the Blake household, The Black Phone is at times a difficult watch. It unapologetically explores the psyche of an abused child, and relies on it as a part of its central premise, which is a very bold choice. It mostly carries this off well, but not without one or two problematic ideas.
The first is that it seems to subtly reinforce the idea that a child should fight back against abuse. By having Finn take control of his own situation by orchestrating an escape, The Black Phone seems to intend to be empowering, but in reality, this could be harmful. Though it’s clear The Black Phone isn’t intended for children, it still falls dangerously close to spreading harmful ideas to those trapped in abusive situations, and that essentially speaks to the danger of its premise.
With that in mind, The Black Phone is a genuinely enjoyable and suspenseful film. It makes use of the standard horror movie toolkit: jump scares, false tension, tightly framed shots, sudden musical stabs. Where it stands apart from other horror movies is the way that it effortlessly blends realistic horror with supernatural elements, and that’s a major win for The Black Phone. Its use of the supernatural is important to the plot, but it’s never so important as to be explored in depth. There’s no tired slog through exposition as the rules of Gwen’s psychic powers or the black phone are established – they simply exist, and that’s enough. It’s confident storytelling, and that makes The Black Phone feel far more impactful and emphatic than it would otherwise.
It’s not without its weaker points and more than a few leaps of logic, but it’s a chilling film for more than one reason. Of course, the immediate premise is terrifying, but the deeper ideas explored by the film are equally as haunting. Perhaps the most powerful thing The Black Phone does is leave the audience with the very subtle feeling of hopelessness suffered by Finn himself – because though he’s escaped the Grabber, all he’s earned is his continued existence in his father’s abusive household. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s not devastating, and that’s perhaps the best anyone could have hoped for. In that, The Black Phone delivers the perfect meta narrative stroke to fully capitalize on the bleakness of its themes.
Summary: What it lacks in logic, it makes up for in subtlety, making The Black Phone a deeply unsettling journey into the minds of its characters that conveys a difficult and powerful message.
Highlights: Ethan Hawke’s performance as the Grabber is truly the stuff of nightmares, cementing his budding status as one of the finest villainous actors in Hollywood.