My favorite kind of horror story is one that feels like it could happen. Indestructible hockey mask-wearing maniacs and wise-cracking burn victims are awesome, but at the end of the day, we can all acknowledge that they are make-believe. Gruesome, yes, but believable…. Not so much. But a story about a small town serial kidnapper set in the 1970s… there’s a sliver of believability there. With no cell phones, how could the abducted kids call for help? No 23 and Me means the kidnapper could get away with his sick plans for a long while before anyone even begins to figure out what is happening. This is the lens I choose to watch The Black Phone. Something that, because of its setting, absolutely could have happened.
The Black Phone was co-written by director Scott Derrickson and Robert Cargill and based on the short story by modern horror master Joe Hill. The story tells the story of a child killer in a small Colorado town who abducts teen boys in broad daylight, and they are never seen again. Ethan Hawke brilliantly plays the film’s antagonist “The Grabber” while Mason Thames portrays his most recent victim Finney.
For me, The Black Phone works because of the believability of its setting. The time and place instantly set the mood. The opening credits are full of nostalgic images of growing up in the 70s. Baseball games, hanging out with friends, skinned knees, and sunny days. It’s only once the missing person posters are introduced that we know that something is not quite right in the neighborhood. We are then introduced to shy Finney and his much more extroverted sister Gwen, played brilliantly by Madeline McGraw. Their interactions with their classmates, school bullies, and a troubled father set up the feeling that the kids in this story are on their own. The adults, other than The Grabber, seem to be nothing more than unreliable participants in the story. This is a kids-taking-care-of-kids situation. What brings everything together into the horror realm is not just the creepiness of The Grabber, but the low-key supernatural abilities Gwen demonstrates as well as the titular Black Phone… the conduit that allows previous victims to communicate with Finney and give him the advice he needs to hear if he hopes to survive.
Hill’s father, the legendary Stephen King, described the film as “Stand by Me in Hell” and that is an accurate description. The group of child protagonists in Stand by Me all had their home issues to deal with, and each was explored while they were trying to find a dead body. However, in The Black Phone, the homelife issues are there, but the story is being told from the perspective of the missing and dead children.
Modern-day movie fans constantly complain that everything on the screen is either a caped crusader story or a remake of a classic. The Black Phone is something both new and familiar. Something equally captivating and spooky. It’s a story that is guaranteed to entertain as much as it will give you shivers.
SinisterRating: Highly Recommend