Anticipation grows as “the Grabber” walks into his basement dungeon where he stores his kidnapped victims. But when half of his mask is removed and the audience sees that it’s Ethan Hawke, the tension eases. “The Black Phone” isn’t much like Hawke’s other famed works (including the “Before Sunrise” trilogy), that’s for sure.
In his first villain role, Hawke plays the part of a serial killer known as the Grabber, a magician who snatches neighborhood kids up in a black van. Audiences watch Finney Shaw, the killer’s most recent would-be victim, as he struggles to escape his captivity. His holy grail is a disconnected phone mounted to the wall through which the spirits of past victims communicate with him.
“The Black Phone,” directed by Scott Derrickson and written by C. Robert Cargill, is an expansion upon Joe Hill’s 2005 original short story. Similar to the horror stories of killers like John Wayne Gacy, “The Black Phone” isn’t a new story. And yet, the film currently holds an 82 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been received well by audiences. What’s so special?
It’s the film’s supposed simplicity.
After seeing “The Black Phone,” I was left with a feeling of unconnected dots. The film wraps up with the Grabber meeting his end, but there is no backstory. No deep dive into the killer’s history. No breakdown of his family dynamic or disastrous romantic sagas. Instead, audiences are left with a classic story of good versus evil with the good prevailing in the end. The only characters given backstory are the victims. There is no attempt to drastically humanize the Grabber.
As a consumer of a lot of true crime media, it’s only natural for me to want more from a story like “The Black Phone.” From podcasts to Netflix series, the modern wave of true crime media has created a strong desire for logic within evil. A large part of consuming this type of content is a need to make sense of the senseless. If we study enough cases, perhaps we can prevent future ones from happening. An even bigger factor in this equation is the shock factor.
Thriller and horror films have been around for decades. The thrill of being scared and getting that adrenaline boost are not new desires. It’s only with the dawn of the internet that those desires get trickier. With the amount of content bombarding us on the daily, there’s a certain universal numbness that has an iron grip on us. Whether it’s terrorist organizations posting beheading videos on YouTube, unrestricted internet access to hardcore pornography, or the ability to look up anything you desire, “shock factor” is more arbitrary than ever.
Even within the film industry itself, mainstream horror films are more intense and graphic. Audiences seem to be waiting for the next film to be even fouler than the ones before. While this poses a dilemma for filmmakers and writers, it also opens a huge opportunity for creativity. This dilemma can be seen as a challenge: a challenge to do more with less and still accomplish the same effect.
This is why “The Black Phone” has been received so well. It offers a simpler story without losing any of its spark or edge. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few graphic scenes — the movie is still a “scary movie.” But instead of relying on gore or audiences’ empathy, it offers us a story in which good triumphs over evil with zero wiggle room for the latter.
The film’s nuance emerges in its details surrounding abuse, trauma, and connectivity. Finney’s life is characterized by violence even before he is kidnapped. Whether it’s intense bullying in the schoolyard or the abuse inflicted by his alcoholic father, Finney’s character development is quick. He is forced to be an adult before his voice has even dropped.
With the help of a spiritual realm, the preteens of “The Black Phone” lead this story. From Finney’s clairvoyant sister Gwen leading the investigation to the deceased victims giving him clues to escape, the connectivity of the young characters adds both an endearing and haunting element to the film. The adults are consistently out-of-touch. Cops won’t listen. The dad is never without a belt or a bottle in hand. The Grabber doesn’t know how to deal with a competent hostage. Peer support and faith in whatever powers-that-be are what prevail in the end.
“The Black Phone” is the perfect example of a thriller that eloquently tells a story without saying that much. All viewers need to do is pick up the phone.