Review: ‘The Black Phone,’ starring Ethan Hawke

June 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames in “The Black Phone” (Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures)

“The Black Phone”

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Denver in 1978, the horror film “The Black Phone” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-boy, who gets kidnapped by a serial killer, is kept in the killer’s basement, where the boy gets phone calls from the ghosts of the other teenage boys who were murdered by the killer. 

Culture Audience: “The Black Phone” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ethan Hawke and anyone looking for a tension-filled horror movie that isn’t a remake or a sequel.

Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw in “The Black Phone” (Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures)

Creepy and suspenseful, the horror movie “The Black Phone” has the ghosts of murdered children as story catalysts, but the movie’s equally harrowing moments are in depicting realistic child abuse that can come from a stranger, a family member or a schoolmate. “The Black Phone” does everything a horror flick is supposed to do: keep audiences on edge, have well-acted memorable characters, and deliver plenty of moments that are genuinely terrifying.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, “The Black Phone” reunites Derrickson with several key players involved in the making of Derrickson’s 2012 sleeper hit horror film “Sinister,” including co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, producer Jason Blum and actors Ethan Hawke and James Ransone. Just like in “Sinister,” Hawke has the starring role, while Ransone has a pivotal supporting role in “The Black Phone.” Both movies are from Blumhouse Productions, the company owned by Blum, whose specialty is mainly horror. Both movies are effective horror films, but “Sinister” was a haunted house story based entirely on supernatural occurrences, while “The Black Phone” taps into the real-life horror of child kidnapping and murders with some supernatural elements as part of the story.

“Sinister” had an original screenplay by Derrickson and Cargill. The screenwriting duo adapted “The Black Phone” from a short story of the same title in author Joe Hill’s 2005 collection “20th Century Ghosts.” (Hill is the son of horror master Stephen King.) In the production notes for “The Black Phone,” Derrickson says many aspects of the movie (including the scenes of the movie’s protagonist being bullied at school) were directly inspired by his childhood growing up in Denver in the 1970s. “The Black Phone” takes place in Denver in 1978.

The movie opens with a seemingly idyllic scene of teenage boys playing a casual game of baseball. Two of the players in the game are 13-year-old Finney Blake (played by Mason Thames) and Bruce Yamada (played by Tristan Pravong), who are both classmates in the same school. (Some movie descriptions list Finney’s last name as Shaw, but his surname in the movie is definitely Blake.) After the game, Bruce is kidnapped by someone driving a mysterious black van.

Bruce’s abduction is the latest in a series of incidents in the northern Denver area, where other teenage boys have gone missing and are widely believed to be kidnapped. Bruce is the fourth boy to have disappeared. The other three missing kids are Griffin Stagg (played by Banks Repeta, also known as Michael Banks Repeta), the neighborhood paper boy Billy Showalter (played by Jacob Moran) and an angry troublemaker named Vance Hopper (played by Brady Hepner). The police who are investigating have very little information to go on, since most of the disappearances had no known witnesses. All of the boys are believed to be have been kidnapped while they were outside on the streets.

While people in the area are feeling that children are unsafe on the streets, Finney (who sometimes goes by the name Finn) and his 11-year-old sister Gwen Blake (played by Madeleine McGraw) fear for their safety inside their own home. That’s because their widower father Terrence Blake (played by Jeremy Davies) is a violent alcoholic. Terrence is especially brutal to Gwen, because she has psychic abilities that he wants her to deny. Gwen’s psychic visions usually come to her in dreams.

Based on conversations in the movie, viewers find out that Gwen inherited these psychic abilities from her mother, who committed suicide. Terrence blames the suicide on these psychic abilities because the kids’ mother (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) claimed that she heard voices. Terrence says that these voices eventually told her to kill herself. The movie doesn’t go into details about when Terrence became an alcoholic, but it’s implied he’s been on a downward spiral since his wife’s suicide.

After Bruce disappears, somehow the police find out that Gwen told people about a dream she had that Bruce was abducted by a man driving a black van and carrying black balloons. Because two black balloons were found at the place where Bruce was last seen alive (the police did not make the black balloon information available to the public), investigators from the Denver Police Department—Detective Wright (played by E. Roger Mitchell) and Detective Wright (played by Troy Rudeseal)—visit the Blake home to interview Gwen. She is defiant and defensive over the cops’ suspicions that she knows more than she telling.

Gwen starts cursing at the cops and swears she has nothing to do with the disappearances of Brandon and the other missing boys. When asked to explain how she knew about the black balloons, all Gwen will say is, “Sometimes my dreams are right.” Terrence is present during this interview. He’s nervous and apprehensive that the cops are in his home. He’s also angry that Gwen is being disrespectful to the cops.

After the police detectives leave, it leads to a heart-wrenching scene where a drunk Terrence viciously beats Gwen with a belt and demands that she repeat, “My dreams are just dreams.” Sensitive viewers, be warned: This is a hard scene to watch, and it might be triggering for people who’ve experienced this type of violence. During this beating, Finney just stands by helplessly and watches, but later in the movie, he expresses guilt and remorse about not stopping his father from assaulting Gwen. As abused children, Finney and Gwen often rely on each other for emotional support.

Finney is introverted and doesn’t have any close friends at school. However, things start looking up for him a little bit in his biology class when the students have to do dissections of frogs and are required to have a lab partner. No one wants to be Finney’s lab partner except a girl named Donna (played by Rebecca Clarke), who is a fairly new student. Donna indicates that she likes Finney and probably has been noticing him for a while. His bashful reaction shows that the attraction is mutual.

Finney experiences physical violence at school, where he is targeted by three bullies. One day, in the men’s restroom at school, these three bullies corner Finney and are about to assault him. However, a tough teenager named Robin Arreland (played by Miguel Cazarez Mora), who’s also a student at the school, intervenes and scares off the bullies because Robin has a knife. Robin advises Finney to be better at standing up for himself.

Eventually, Robin and Finney get to know each other too. They don’t become best friends, but they become friendly acquaintances. This budding friendship is interrupted when Robin disappears, not long after Bruce has gone missing. The cops visit the Blake home again, but Gwen has nothing further to add, mainly because she terrified about divulging to the cops what she has dreamed.

It isn’t long before Finney is kidnapped too. This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s shown in the trailers for “The Black Phone.” His kidnapper is nicknamed The Grabber (played by Hawke), and he approaches Finney on a late afternoon when Finney is walking down a residential street by himself. The Grabber (who has long hair and is wearing white clown makeup, sunglasses and a top hat) is driving a black van with the logo of a company named Abracadabra Entertainment and Supplies.

When The Grabber sees Finney, he pretends to stumble out of the van and spill a bag of groceries. Finney offers to help him pick up the groceries. The Grabber tells the teen that he’s a part-time magician and asks Finney if he wants to see a magic trick.

Finney agrees somewhat apprehensively, and his nervousness grows when he notices that there are black balloons in the van. When Finney asks this stranger if he has black balloons in the van, the stranger kidnaps him. Finney has now become the sixth teenage boy to disappear in the same neighborhood.

Finney is kept in a dark and dingy house basement that has a mattress and a toilet. On the wall is a black phone that The Grabber says is disconnected. “It hasn’t worked since I was a kid,” The Grabber tells a terrified Finney.

The Grabber (who usually wears grinning clown masks that look similar to DC Comics’ The Joker character) tells Finney not to bother yelling for help, because the entire basement is soundproof. There’s only one door to and from the basement. It goes without saying that the door is locked from the outside. The Grabber also has a black pit bull as a guard dog.

There are several scenes in “The Black Phone” that show how The Grabber is a completely twisted creep. There’s a scene where Finney wakes up to find the masked Grabber staring at Finney because The Grabber says he just wanted to spend time looking at Finney. When Finney says he’s hungry and asks for food, The Grabber won’t feed him right away. There are other scenes where The Grabber uses intimidation and mind games to keep Finney under his control.

Even though The Grabber says that the black phone in the basement doesn’t work, shortly after Finney becomes imprisoned in the basement, the phone rings. The first time that Finney picks up the phone, he doesn’t hear anything. The next time the phone rings, he hears static and a voice of a boy who sounds far away. It’s the first indication that Finney has psychic abilities too.

It was already revealed in the trailers for “The Black Phone” that much of the movie is about Finney getting calls from the ghosts of the boys who were murdered by The Grabber. The only real spoiler information for “The Black Phone” would be the answers to these questions: “Does Finney escape? If so, how?” “Does Gwen use her psychic abilities to help find Finney?” “What will ultimately happen to The Grabber?”

Another character who is part of the story is a man in his early 40s named Max (played by Ransone), who gets on the radar of police because Max has become obsessed with the cases of the missing boys. Max is a cocaine-snorting loner who thinks of himself as an amateur detective. His home is filled with newspaper clippings and other items related to the investigations about the missing boys.

Even though a lot of information about the “The Black Phone” plot is already revealed in the movie’s trailers, there’s still much about the movie that’s worth seeing. (Audiences also got a early showings of “The Black Phone” when it screened at film festivals, including the 2021 edition of Fantastic Fest, where “The Black Phone” had its world premiere.) The scenes where Finney communicates with the dead boys are absolutely haunting and often mournful. These scenes include some flashbacks to the boys’ lives before they were kidnapped.

Vance’s flashback scene is artfully filmed as a 1970s hazy memory, as are many of the flashback scenes. Sweet’s 1974 hit “Fox on the Run” is used to great effect in this scene, which takes place in a Shop-N-Go convenience store where Vance is playing pinball. Gwen’s dream sequences were filmed using Super 8 film, which was the standard film type for home movies in the 1970s.

The production design, costume design, hairstyling, makeup and cinematography in “The Black Phone” all give the movie an authentic-looking recreation of the 1970s. The movie’s soundtrack includes some well-chosen songs, including the Edgar Winter Group’s 1972 hit “Free Ride,” which is played in the movie’s happy-go-lucky baseball game scene that opens the movie. (Coincidentally, “Free Ride” and “Fox on the Run” were also prominently featured in writer/director Richard Linklater’s 1993 classic comedy “Dazed and Confused,” which is an ode to 1970s teens.)

“The Black Phone” also has pop culture mentions to movies of the era. Finney and Robin talk about the 1974 horror movie “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which Finney says his strict father would never allow him to see because he’s underage. Robin says he has relatives who let him watch rated R movies. They also enthusiastically discuss the 1973 Bruce Lee action film “Enter the Dragon,” which is “The Black Phone” filmmakers’ nod to how popular Lee was with teenage boys in that era. Later, Finney is seen watching the 1959 horror movie “The Tingler” on TV one night, which is a scene inspired by director Derrickson doing the same thing when he was a child.

“The Black Phone” also accurately depicts the limited resources that people had if children went missing in 1978, long before the Internet and smartphones existed. It was also before missing kids’ photos were put on milk cartons, inspired by the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz, who was kidnapped while walking by himself to school in New York City. It was also before the 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was taken from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida. As a result of this tragedy, Adam’s father John Walsh later founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The 1970s decade was also a prolific time for notorious serial killers, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Hillside Stranglers and the Son of Sam. According to the production notes for “The Black Phone,” The Grabber character was at least partially based on Gacy, who did part-time work as a party clown. Most of Gacy’s victims were teenage boys and young men whom he lured into his home by hiring them to do temporary housecare jobs. There was a sexual component to Gacy’s crimes that are not included in “The Black Phone,” although there are hints that The Grabber could also be a child molester when it’s mentioned that The Grabber likes to play a game called Naughty Boy.

In his portrayal of The Grabber, Hawke gives a viscerally disturbing performance that will linger with viewers long after the movie ends. Thames makes an impressive feature-film debut as Finney, who goes through a wide range of emotions in the movie. McGraw is also a standout in her portrayal of feisty and sometimes foul-mouthed Gwen. “The Black Phone” has some comic relief in how Gwen is ambivalent about the Christianity that she has been taught. And although Robin’s screen time is brief, Mora is quite good in this portrayal of a character who makes an impact on Finney’s life.

Despite some predictable plot developments, “The Black Phone” is a better-than-average horror movie because it doesn’t forget that the story and characters should be more important than showing a lot of violence and gore. The movie does have violence and gore, but it’s not gratuitous. The movie also makes a point of showing that abuse crimes don’t always come from strangers, but that abuse is often hiding in plain sight in schools and in families, where the abuse is committed by people who seem to be “upstanding citizens.” It’s this message that should resonate as a warning that a lot of horror in this movie continues to happen in real life.

Universal Pictures will release “The Black Phone” in U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022.

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