What’s more frightening than checking up on your kid before bed and finding it empty? Maybe it’s sending them off to school that morning, unaware it would be the last time you’d get to see them again? Horror conjures some of our worst nightmares. These are mosaics of terror that lurk in the shadows of our minds, projected on-screen, veiled by abject masks and jumpscares. Perhaps even more terrifying is when those parts of horror we keep at a distance crystalize with narratives that often resemble our everyday life. Where “missing child” posters invoke involuntarily responses of dread that stick with you long after the credits roll.
Set in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado in 1978 The Black Phone follows the eerie disappearance of several neighborhood young boys. Inspired by Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson, becomes a blend of supernatural and psychological suspense that blurs lines of found footage and film. It also becomes a distorting point of view that oscillates between the lead Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his youngest sister Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw), a clairvoyant. After several of the neighborhood, boys begin to go missing, Finney falls prey to Ethan Hawke’s ‘The Grabber’ after he’s drugged and dragged into the black “Abracadabra” van. Vans and nabbed children make for far more frightening images than any gore. Then again, so is the redundancy of suburban homes that blend into one and make it harder for Gwen to find her brother. It also helps The Grabber remain in plain sight the entire time he’s taking children and killing them.
The Black Phone is a terse and harrowing look at masculinity in the ’70s. It’s about the over-compensation of male vulnerability in a world determined to beat it out of young boys. It’s also an exhilarating ride of terror, and Ethan Hawke delivers one of the most spine-chilling performances of his career as a child murderer. Derrickson has a fascinating history linking the analog to the violence of men that predates this film. In his 2012 child horror Sinister, also starring Ethan Hawke, Derrickson utilizes old film cameras as a tool of horror that is so pivotal to the genre. It’s something he brings back with The Black Phone but through visions and dreams of the victims. The static use of these shots creates a haunting atmosphere that codes each vision from the point of view of a parent imagining the worst possible scenario in the case of a kidnapping.
Every moment of the film is gut-wrenching in ways that extend beyond the murders of the film. Witnessing the physical and psychological abuse of Finney and Gwen at the hands of their alcoholic father, Terrence Blake (Jeremy Davis), and the relentless torture by other kids at school was perhaps a more violent display of hatred than that of The Grabber. It often blurs the lines between the abusive scenarios the two Blake children find themselves in. It suddenly becomes a film about masculine rage and the early loss of innocence. Young boys are not safe anywhere. Bullies are around every corner. The Grabber thus becomes the visual representation of just how far masculinity will go to self-preserve at the hands of other men. Just another iteration of everything else Finn has experienced at this point in his life. Maybe that’s why he was able to escape, which is a sad observation of lived experiences.
While the film excels at the psychologically thrilling parts of the narrative, it staggers in the paranormal. Some of the bits where the young boys would come speak with Finn were a little out of place at times. The Black Phone was at its best when it focused solely on the psychological prison that was being a young boy like Finn, and the continuous attack on his innocence and spirit. Of making “men” out of young children who barely understand the consequences of their actions.
Focusing on the victims of these crimes, Derrickson plays with our culture’s morbid curiosity regarding true-crime culture. It holds up a mirror to viewers whose sole consumption of true crime is for thrills and corrupt voyeurism. Seeing for the sake of it. The Black Phone redirects the attention on the victims and literally invokes their names, purposefully keeping the real identity of The Grabber and his motives unknown at the end of the film. Because it’s not about him. It never was. Recognizing how victims get lost in the overflow of irrational infatuation with the perpetrators of these crimes, Derrickson redefined the possible reevaluation of true crime consumption and our own fault for retraumatizing the victims.