“The Black Phone” is a well-crafted supernatural horror flick, directed by Scott Derrickson from a script he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill (“the 2012 “Sinister”). Set in what most of us would like to think is a more innocent time, the film is based on a short story of the same name by Joe Hill. And if you fear clowns, this won’t help you. This is serial killer saga with supernatural twist.
Remember a time before the internet, cellphones and social media? Information not so readily available and life might have seemed to flow a little slower. That had its advantages as well as disadvantages. The 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is a skinny boy who pitches for his little league team and almost strikes out the more popular Bruce Yamata (Tristan Pravong). His sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) watches him play from the stands, but where are his parents? Their mother has died, but remains an unseen, but haunting presence. Their father gets drunk on Fridays and on Friday nights, Finney’s sister, Gwen stays over her friend’s house.
This North Denver suburb is the kind of place that kids can cycle in the streets by themselves, but should they? In the realm of the normal, kids like Finney are the targets for bigger meaner kids led by Moose (J. Gaven Wilde). One of the bullies takes on the wrong kid, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora). Robin gives the other kid a thrashing, punching him over and over in the face, even after the bully has given up. In a time before cellphones (This is 1978.), people are watching, but not videotaping. Finney and Gwen watch and like the others, do nothing.
Yet Robin scares the bullies away when they corner Finney in the boys’ bathroom; Finney helps Robin with homework. Robin tells Finney that some day, he’ll need to stand up for himself.
At home, we learn that Finney and Gwen’s father favors a liquid diet: Coors. The kids watch TV and sometimes need to quell their youthful exuberance and move with the studied quiet movements of abused animals. Besides her friend, Gwen finds comfort in her faith. She believes in God and is helped by an old clay-animated children’s television series, “Davey and Goliath.”
Horror first enters the small world of Finney and Gwen when the smiling, good-natured Bruce is snatched off the streets. But Bruce is not the first victim. Before him, the paperboy Billy (Jacob Moran) and the foul-mouthed bully Vance (Brady Hepner) were abducted by the person dubbed “The Grabber.” We don’t meet these three while they are living but Derrickson makes sure we get to know them.
Gwen knows something about the abductions because, like her mother, she has dreams, dreams that come true and dreams that give her clues. She sees a black van, black balloons and a clown. Detectives Miller (Troy Rudeseal) and Wright (E. Roger Mitchel) come over the question Gwen because she knows things that the police never released to the public. This unnerves her father, who screams at Gwen, “You’re not your mother. Your dreams are just f*cking dreams.” When Robin is abducted, Finney is again targeted by bullies and he begs her to have visions. Gwen prays for visions, but nothing she can do prevents Finney from being the fifth young boy to disappear.
Derrickson shows us how The Grabber operates. A man near a black van asks Finney for help, but Finney is wary. The man has other plans and snatches Finney, but before he becomes unconscious, Finney is able to injure the Grabber. When Finney wakes up, he’s lying on a mattress in a concrete room with one window and an old disconnected black phone. The Grabber appears with a demonic mask and soothingly tells Finney, “I know you’re scared; I’m not going to hurt you any more” and “You don’t have to be scared because nothing bad is going to happen to you here.” The Grabber tries to reassure Finney, “I don’t ever make you do anything that you won’t like.”
Yet Finney knows this isn’t true. He feels it intuitively, but he also hears the disconnected phone ring. And from this black phone, he’s able to communicate with one of the boys who had been grabbed before. It’s to Derrickson and Cargill’s credit that we care for these boys. The script gives them distinctive speech patterns and visually through grainy montages, , we quickly learn about their lives before they were abducted. The color of these sequences contrast the near monochromatic yet desperate scenes of Finney’s concrete prison.
Although we rarely see Hawke’s face, his voice and his posture manifest a threatening presence as does his mask. That’s no clown mask coulrophobes take note, but one more aptly described as that of a demon.
I was impressed with the layered and deeply nuanced storytelling here, enough to as to look up the previous collaboration between Hawke and Derrickson, “Sinister.” In that film as well, children were used and they all had back stories and Derrickson was able to get good performances from them. I’m somewhat disappointed that this film is R-rated because I think it provides an awareness that boys and men too should be more cautious because girls and women aren’t the only victims of abductors and serial killers.
The Year 1978
I don’t know specifically why the year 1978 was chosen, but it wasn’t a peaceful year. There were great blizzards that killed people in January and February. Charles Chaplin’s remains were stolen from the Swiss graveyard and found over a month later less than 10 miles away. But it was also the year that Roman Polanski fled the US after pleading guilty of charges of statutory rape of a female minor and the first Unabomber package exploded (Northwestern University), injuring but not killing police officer Terry Marker. By the end of the year, John Wayne Gacy Jr. had been arrested.
John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994) was, like the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, born in Chicago. Kacziynski was caught in 1996, and had sent out 17 bombs over two decades that killed three people (computer store owner Hugh Scrutton, advertising executive Thomas J. Mosser and Timber industry lobbyist Gilbert Brent Murray) and injured many more. After Gacy’s arrest, the police found the bodies of 29 boys and young men in and around the house with an additional four bodies found near a river. The stench of decaying bodies, Gacy had explained away as a humidity problem. Gacy was married.
Gacy had created the character “Pogo the Clown” and he appeared in this persona for charity events and parties. He visited hospitals and parades. For that reason, and his household decor which featured clowns, he was dubbed the Killer Clown. His youngest known victims were 14 (Samuel G. Dodd Stapleton and Michael M. Marino). The oldest victim was 21 (Francis Wayne Alexander). Five victims remain unidentified.
Another thing that places this film the past is the animation that the children were watching, “Davey and Goliath.” The series began in 1961 and ended its fifth season in 1973, although it continued to have special until 1975 and then once in 2004.
Davey is a boy who has a dog named Goliath. The dog can only speak, but only Davey (and by extension, the viewer) hear him. The cartoon series was first produced by the United Lutheran Church in America and then the Lutheran Church in America. The central characters were created by Art Clokey, Ruth Clokey and Dick Sutcliffe. Art Clokey was the creator of Gumby and the original voice of Gumby’s pal, Pokey. Art Clokey had been adopted by Joseph Waddell Clokey after his mother and his stepfather placed him in a children’s home. Joseph Clokey was a composer of sacred and secular music. Ruth was his wife (1948 until their divorce in 1966).
To see “Davey and Goliath” (I’m not sure of the episode.), it would have to be in reruns. The kids also watch the TV show “Emergency!” and an old film, the 1959 “The Tingler.” The characters reference “The Partridge Family” (talking about Danny Partridge) which ran from 1970 to 1974 and “Happy Days” which ran from 1974 to 1984. “The Partridge Family” is about a widow who begins to tour with her kids as a popular singing group, inspired by a real family band, the Cowslips.
“The Tingler” starred Vincent Price and while filmed in black-and-white, “The Black Phone” uses the the short color sequence that was spliced in. The set was painted white, black and gray and the actress was also made up in gray makeup. The water that comes from the taps and in the bath tub is bright red.
I don’t feel it is necessary to argue about the Diversity Dude Dies First trope. Yes, Bruce does disappear first in viewers’ timeline since we don’t know the other two (White) boys who disappear before him, but Derrickson has given his character depth. He’s not a throwaway token minority. The second abductee in our timeline is Latino and that again could appear problematic, but Robin does have a key role later on.
I did find it interesting that looking at the current demographics of Denver County (White is 80 percent, Black/African American is 9.8 percent, Asian is 4.1 percent and Latino/Hispanic is 29 percent), the casting doesn’t feature a Black/African American kid. While it would be more consistent with the demographics, by not doing so, the film does break from the binary of diversity as Black and White. The cast does feature a Black detective (E. Roger Mitchell).
“The Black Phone” premiered at the Fantastic Fest 25 September 2021, but was released by Universal Pictures in the US on 24 June 2022.
This supernatural horror flick manages to fully flesh out its ghostly characters to add layers of horror and engage our sympathetic impulses as the latest victim of a serial killer attempts to escape his imprisonment in a basement room. Ethan Hawke as the serial killer is terrifying even though we see little of his face, and the kids, particularly Madeleine McGraw and Mason Thames as brother and sister, give well-layered performances.