THE BLACK PHONE, Nightmare Fuel From Two of the Best Horror Filmmakers Working Today

Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill adapt Joe Hill’s 2004 short story

Finney and Gwen during one of the few, uneventful moments in The Black Phone.

Near the end of The Twilight Zone’s five-year, 156-episode run, Rod Serling debuted “Night Call,” a bone-chillingly adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story, “Long Distance Call.” What seem initially like a series of crank calls turn into something entirely different, a call connecting the central character, a bedridden, elderly woman filled with a lifetime of regret, and her long-dead lover and fiancé, spending eternity waiting for her to answer his phone call. “Night Call” ends on an exquisitely eerie note, a morality-based twist typical of the series. Decades later, it likely inspired Joe Hill (Horns, 20th Century Ghosts) to borrow the premise for a taut, 30-page short story of his own, “The Black Phone.” That, in turn, inspired co-adapters Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil, Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and C. Robert Cargill, to expand Hill’s memorably resonant story into a gruelingly, relentlessly effective addition to the survival horror sub-genre.

The Black Phone opens in a quiet, leafy suburb outside Denver, Colorado in the late 1970s, except it’s far from quiet (though the unnamed suburb qualifies as leafy). A child-kidnapping killer, dubbed the “Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) with characteristic obviousness by the local media, has been on the loose for several months or more and the typically inept police have gotten nowhere, always arriving too late on the scene of each disappearance, sharing mildly comforting platitudes with the families of the disappeared, and otherwise jotting down useless note after useless note. Oddly, the residents of this suburb react with numbed knowingness, stopping briefly here or there when they encounter yet another “Lost” poster before shrugging their shoulders and deciding to carry on with their suburban lives.

Never trust anyone who permanently wears a mask around the dungeon.

What might seem odd to audiences on the other side of the digital screen, however, fall closer in line with the real-world than we’d like to admit, especially in a world where large swaths of Americans ignored a global pandemic and continue to ignore a gun violence epidemic that shows no sign of slowing down (the opposite, unfortunately). It’s that context, where even after several boys have disappeared, a Little League game pitting Finney (Mason Thames), a flame-throwing pitcher, and Bruce Yamada (Tristan Pravong), a home-run hitting slugger, becomes the singular, if temporary, center of attention for the players, their families, and everyone in attendance.

Not soon after, though, Bruce disappears, the Grabber’s latest victim. Once again, the police show up in full force, blocking off streets, running sirens and lights, and expressing real, if ultimately useless, concern. Mourning isn’t an option; only survival is. And for Finney, that’s harder than it looks. Between the usual, King-inspired bullies, an abusive, alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), and trying to get his crush to recognize his existence, he has a full life. Finney also has a reciprocally empathetic relationship with his younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and protecting her, usually without success, from their father’s alcohol-fueled wrath.

Real or imaginary? Possibly, but not likely.

As Derrickson and Cargill peel back the layers of Finney and Gwen’s fraught relationship with their father, we learn Gwen, like her deceased mother before her, has been gifted and/or cursed by frustratingly incomplete or vague premonitions involving the Grabber and his victims. Those premonitions randomly appear in Gwen’s dreams. While Terrence sees mental illness or worse (demonic or satanic) in Gwen’s dreams, Gwen sees them specifically as messages from Jesus. It often feels too cute by half, especially given a world where children disappear regularly, likely dying in gruesome ways, without anything or anyone, natural or supernatural, to stop the killer.

Gwen’s faith certainly seems naive, but Derrickson and Cargill accept it at face value and hope at least some members of the audience will, especially after Finney, the Grabber’s latest victim, finds himself in the killer’s sound-proofed dungeon, alone and with little chance of escape, with only the titular disused black phone connecting him to the Grabber’s previous victims. At least initially, Derrickson and Cargill leave the question open as to whether the voices Finney hears over the black phone are “real” or imagined, a self-defense mechanism as he attempts to uncover any tool or advantage that will allow him to survive his encounter with the Grabber.

Derrickson and Cargill interweave Finney’s dungeon experience with Gwen’s increasingly desperate attempt to convince the adults around her, including her father and two well-meaning, if ineffectual, detectives, Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Miller (Troy Rudeseal), to trust her premonitions before it’s too late. For some, Gwen’s separate storyline might seem like padding, added to turn Hill’s short story into a feature-length film. That might be functionally through, but it also doubles as the emotional through-line, adding a level of poignancy as Finney’s attempts to escape are paralleled by Gwen’s desire to save her brother. It’s no accident that the best, moving scenes in The Black Phone don’t involve Finney alone or Finney and the rather drably written Grabber character, but Finney and Gwen together, as deeply relatable as any siblings in or out of the horror genre.

The Black Phone opens in North American movie theaters on Friday, June 24th.

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