Set in 1978 and featuring a desaturated colour palette to match, The Black Phone plays nicely on the nightmares of anyone who grew up during that period of time and the era of ‘Stranger Danger’. The bad man that takes kids from the streets in an unmarked van, posters dotted around town pleading for information about missing kids. And it certainly worked for me – heck, even the grainy footage and ominous music of the opening credits were enough to creep me out!
It’s actually a little while before we get to meet the boogeyman of the story, known here as “the Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) because of the way he just grabs kids off the street only for them to never be seen again. Aside from the odd glimpse of a black van slowly pulling out of a side street in the background, much of the movie is first spent focusing on 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) and his little sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw). Home life is tough for Finney and Gwen after losing their mum and being left in the care of their father (Jeremy Davies), who handles his grief by getting drunk and taking it out on his kids.
School life isn’t that much better either, with Finney regularly targeted by bullies. Thankfully, he’s friends at school with someone who can handle himself, as demonstrated earlier, in a bloody and brutal brawl between him and another bully. As for Gwen, she can more than handle herself, hurling rage-fuelled f-bombs at the police and anyone else who pisses her off or messes with her brother, not afraid to get stuck in with her fists when the need arises either, and proving herself to be the standout star of the movie. Gwen is also gifted with second sight, something that she inherited from her mother, and has recently been having dreams in which she is able to pick up certain details surrounding some of the recent abductions. Her gift draws the attention of local police, who start to take her seriously when she mentions details unknown to the general public.
Unfortunately, Finney crosses paths with the Grabber while walking home and winds up captive in his basement, which is pretty bare apart from a mattress, a toilet, and an old black phone on the wall that’s been disconnected. The Grabber occasionally brings Finney some food and tells him that he’s not going to hurt him. but the alternating masks he wears – white with twisted smiles or frowns – only add to the feeling that things aren’t likely to end very well for Finney.
When the Grabber isn’t around, the black phone on the wall rings and when he picks it up Finney is surprised to learn that he is able to communicate with the deceased kids who have already been in his position. We are able to see the ghosts of the children as they talk, while Finney can only hear them. Through these conversations, Finney learns of escape attempts that were started but not finished, the combination of the lock on the door upstairs, should he ever make it that far, and details regarding how the Grabber operates and what fate lies in store for Finney. It’s up to Finney to overcome his fears and use what he learns in order to escape and deliver vengeance for those who weren’t so lucky.
There’s a nice little ‘IT’ vibe to the movie as we get to know the kids and follow how they all work together to try and defeat evil. And coincidentally, The Black Phone is based on a short story by Joe Hill, son of IT author Stephen King.
I was actually quite surprised by how much of the plot is given away in the trailers for The Black Phone, especially surrounding the capture of Finney and his interactions with the dead kids. As usual, all of the jump scares were already shown in the trailers too (although that still didn’t stop most of the audience from jumping out of their seats when they saw them!) and the movie isn’t anywhere near as scary as I was hoping. There’s some clunky dialogue here and there, and you’ll be amazed at just how far along Finney manages to progress some of his escape attempts without the Grabber noticing anything at all. But despite that, I actually really bought into it all and thoroughly enjoyed the satisfying finale it delivered.
Web developer by day, with a movie and TV watchlist that continues to grow as much as my spare time reduces! My favourite movie is Inception and, despite what everyone says, I do not have a man-crush on Tom Cruise.