The Black Phone first published by Little White Lies
It is 1978, in North Denver, and Little Leaguer Finney Shaw (Mason Thomas), on the cusp of adolescence, is living in constant terror – and not just the usual teen angst about whether he can attract the attention of the girl he likes in his class (Rebecca Clarke), but also the very real fear that, even if he manages to endure running the gauntlet of various contemporaries at school looking to beat him up, back at home he or his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) might get the belt from their own father (Jeremy Davies), who is a violent, volatile alcoholic. Lurking somewhere in the background of all this is a mysterious figure, dubbed ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) by the press – a serial killer who has been abducting young boys from the street, and who has come to embody all the fears of this community. Soon Finney will be snatched too, held prisoner in The Grabber’s sound-proofed basement – and if his friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who would fearlessly take on all comers and keep the school bullies bloodily at bay, was unable to overcome his child-killing captor and get away, what hope does Finney have?
Finney, though, has two unusual, indeed supernatural edges in his harrowing predicament. The first is that his sister, like his late mother, has paranormal dreams which give her hints and clues as to Finney’s experiences and location – and the second is that The Grabber’s previous victims keep calling Finney, impossibly, on a disconnected black phone and guiding him through steps for how to succeed in staying alive where they had failed. These two storylines, Gwen’s outside the basement and Finney’s inside, play out in parallel without ever truly intersecting, and it is easily possible to imagine The Black Phone dispensing altogether with Gwen’s clairvoyant pursuit of her brother without losing any of its narrative trajectory or outcome. Still, Gwen is a great character, sweary and kickass where a typical cinematic medium would be fey and ethereal – and if her subplot feels a little like padding, at least it allows the viewer to leave the oppressive space of The Grabber’s brutalist bunker. Of course, Gwen’s crisis of faith when faced with the problem of unspeakable evil, making her begin to doubt her conviction that her visions come from a benign Jesus, allows director/co-writer Scott Derrickson to bring in the Christian preoccupations of his earlier The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Deliver Us From Evil (2014). The devil’s mask that the Grabber wears fits rights into this framing of events as a religious struggle between Christ-like good and Satanic evil.
Adapted from Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, The Black Phone also comes with cinematic influences. It reunites Derrickson with his co-writer C. Robert Cargill and his star Hawke from Sinister (2012), and reprises from that film a distinctive marking scratched across the basement’s concrete walls. More in keeping with the late Seventies setting, Finney and Robin duly namecheck both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – which Finney is not allowed to watch – and Enter the Dragon (1973), and sure enough this does include both martial arts and several dysfunctional families (one murderous). Yet it mostly recalls the underground entrapment of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), only with the further taboo of much younger abductees, and with the addition of vengeful ghosts.
The individual instructions that these ghosts give Finney may seem fruitless, but come together with elegant serendipity in the end. For ultimately this story of a young boy’s emergence exhibits strong teleological leanings, suggesting that all our endeavours – even our apparent failures – ultimately have a purpose in a grander scheme. Whether that scheme is God’s plan, or just instinctive programming to survive, assimilate and evolve – indeed whether we have been witnessing phantom-led escape attempts, or a boy’s coping mechanism of psychogenic fugue – remains the film’s true mystery. Either way, for Finney this ordeal is less spiritual journey than rite of passage, as the 13 year old must learn to stand up for himself – and for others – and to overcome his fear.
Enjoyment: Smells like teen spirits…
In retrospect: …but feels padded
strap: Scott Derrickson’s horror thriller takes an anti-nostalgic look at adolescence as something terrifying to be survived.