The horror in THE BLACK PHONE, and very effective horror it is, comes not primarily from the serial child killer on the loose in a suburban enclave of Denver in 1978. Played with a geeky, creepy panache by Ethan Hawke, The Grabber, as he is dubbed by the police and the populace of this all-American part of the world, is merely the excrescence of what happens in family homes behind closed doors and out in the open of schoolyards where adults chalk it up to horseplay and move on. As he preys upon the naughty boys he has abducted, The Grabber is following a playbook laid out for him by the culture at large by which he may or may not have been victimized. Hints such as those are a testament to the literate writing and the subdued performances in a film about finding the strength to fight back.
There is no better place to start than at a summer Little League game, where 13-year-old ace pitcher Finney Blake (Mason Thames), who has given up a run to equally skilled player Bruce (Tristan Pravong), displays the grace of good sportsmanship that leaves them both smiling. Bruce becomes The Grabber’s latest victim, while Finney and his sister continue to live in fear of their unstable, and perpetually inebriated father (Jeremy Davies), who berates and beats mercilessly as his way of coping with the suicide of their mother.
Finney’s abuse continues back at school, where he’s the target of the resident bullies, though spared physical violence thanks to his friend, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), a budding martial arts master who has taken Finney under his wing. Things fall apart when Robin becomes another of The Grabber’s victims, and Finney’s younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) starts having what seem to be prophetic dreams about the abductor, leading to savage beatings by her father, which she channels into attacking Finney’s bullies and drawing serious blood. While there is much to be said about the cycle of abuse evinced so far in the story, and a thoughtful narrative could have been spun around that single issue, the film dares to be address it from a much darker place.
When Finney is abducted, the dank, soundproofed basement to which he is confined has the eponymous phone, mounted on a wall with its line cut. That it still rings from time to time is explained to the boy by The Grabber as a trick of static electricity. It’s not, of course, and as Finney waits for his certain demise, the voices he hears on the other end of that disconnected phone are those of the previous victims, each telling Finney how they tried to escape, but ran out of time. Each plan has merit, and the tension mounts as Finney tries each of them in turn, attempting to avoid the inevitable. Meanwhile Gwen, praying to the makeshift altar she has created in her dollhouse for the dreams that will lead her to Finney, faces an existential crisis of faith while being further torn about confiding the oneiric clues she receives to the father who has beaten her for having second sight. Indeed, the sight of that beating may be the most difficult sequence to witness in the entire film. Followed by a later scene of Gwen telling her father that she loves him.
Thames firmly anchors the film with the preternatural quiet of a child taught the hard way not to draw attention to himself. When Finney deals with The Grabber, there is the sense that everything the world has thrown at Finney up to this point has prepared him for dealing with this very situation. The threat of violence is nothing new to him, and his reactions are not those of a panicked child, but of a young man who has had to deal with abuse so often that it has hardened him into a cocoon of numbness. He has the self-possession of experience, and it is not until all seems lost that he finally breaks down, and then from having hope snatched from him.
Clued in by the voices on the phone, who sometimes manifest is grotesque phantasms, Finney, and we, can anticipate with suitable dread the steps in The Grabber’s game, adding to the razor-wire of suspense. Director/co-screenwriter Scott Derrickson frames The Grabber in his horned mask (are those real teeth leering at us?) looming in the basement’s stairway by catching outlines of bright light. When he speaks, it’s with gentle tones edged in the menace of giddy anticipation of what he will do to Finney. At one point, Derrickson shoots him sitting in a chair waiting for Finney to make the mistake that will start their game, and he is posed like a quotidian Baphomet, lacking only the hooved feet and reversed pentagram on his forehead. A perfect juxtaposition of the perversion lurking in the ordinary.
THE BLACK PHONE, based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, is not merely scary. It disturbs the psyche even as it toys with its protagonist and with us. Directed with skillful misdirection and splendid attention to details that resonate with the macabre, it’s a perfect waking nightmare.