In this article:
- Scott Derrickson’s 2021 horror film The Black Phone, based on a short story of the same name by Joe Hill, has many parallels to the true story of John Wayne Gacy as well as aspects reminiscent of the Satanic Panic and some supernatural elements, for good measure.
- The film centers on a 13-year-old boy named Finney who is kidnapped by a satanic serial killer known as “The Grabber.”
- Using a mysterious black phone in his captor’s basement Finney is able to communicate with The Grabber’s past victims, who help him form an escape plan.
- The Black Phone was definitely engaging and entertaining. Unfortunately, some of the characters, particularly the villain, were underdeveloped. There were also some major aspects of the plot that weren’t effectively tied together.
Take the story of John Wayne Gacy and the 33 victims that he brutally murdered near Chicago in the 1970s. Now, imagine that all of Gacy’s victims were able to communicate with one another from the afterlife to help the newest victim escape the wrath of the “Killer Clown.”
Then, imagine that Gacy had a fascination with doing the bidding of the dark lord Satan. Add all of those elements together and you pretty much have the plot of Scott Derrickson’s 2021 horror film, The Black Phone.
While the plot description above is obviously reductionist, it’s easy to see where the inspiration for Joe Hill’s 2004 short story The Black Phone (the literary work on which the film is based) came from.
The story plays on the audience’s collective coulrophobia (fear of clowns), which became ever more prominent after John Wayne Gacy’s killing spree. It also serves as a callback to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s. However, unexpectedly, the ghosts in the film act as allies to our 13-year-old protagonist.
Overall, while The Black Phone was undeniably captivating, it did seem a bit messy in terms of its plot. There was a satanic clown killer, a boy who could communicate with the dead by using a mysterious supernatural telephone, a girl with psychic powers who could see the deceased in her dreams, and an abusive father with a drinking problem. In my opinion, a lot of these plot devices seemed unnecessary.
Still, I must admit that I was fairly engaged for the full 102 minutes of the film when I saw it in theaters. And, upon learning that Joe Hill is actually the son of Stephen King, the fact that such a hodgepodge of elements was employed in the story started to make more sense.
A Quick Summary of The Black Phone
In 1978, a serial abductor known as “The Grabber” is terrorizing the Denver suburbs, snatching children in broad daylight and presumably killing them. Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Blake (Madeleine McGraw), brother and sister, are living under the roof of their abusive, alcoholic father and hearing stories of their friends disappearing one by one.
Gwen seems to have inherited some sort of psychic ability from her late mother that allows her to communicate with those who have been kidnapped through her dreams. However, her father discourages her from speaking about these dreams and beats her when she does.
Not long after The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) gets a hold of Finney’s best friend Robin, Finney gets abducted by a man who claims that he’s a “part-time magician” and has a van full of black balloons.
Finney soon finds himself laying on a dusty mattress in a concrete room with a mysterious black phone on the wall. The phone is disconnected, and The Grabber tells him that the phone hasn’t worked since he was a child.
Soon, Finney gets a call from Bruce, one of The Grabber’s former murder victims, who tells Finney that there is a loose tile in the hallway of the basement where he could potentially dig a hole to freedom. Finney attempts the escape plan — and a few others — but it’s unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Gwen is having dreams about her brother in captivity and alerts her father to what is going on. Of course, her skeptical father tells her that her dreams are meaningless.
Finney later gets another call from a deceased boy named Griffin who informs him that The Grabber is asleep and that he can escape the house by opening a combination lock. Finney escapes momentarily, but The Grabber’s dog wakes him up and Finney is recaptured.
In a final attempt at freedom, Finney uses the rope to trip The Grabber into the hole he dug in the hallway. The Grabber falls onto the bars from the window and breaks his ankle. Finney then uses the phone to repeatedly bludgeon The Grabber and, ultimately, chokes him to death with the cord of the phone.
Meanwhile, Gwen’s nocturnal visions have helped her lead the cops to the house across from where Finney is being held, where The Grabber had buried his victims. The cops enter the house and find the bodies of the past victims, but no Finney. Suddenly, as Gwen is waiting outside, she sees her brother emerge from the house across the street and runs (in slow motion, of course) to go hug him.
The Black Phone Presents an Interesting Premise but Falls Flat on Character Development and Execution
My biggest issue with The Black Phone involves the killer’s motive. Over the course of the film, there is very little to let the audience into the mind of the villain, which is usually the most fascinating part of any movie about a serial killer.
Why was The Grabber drawn to kidnapping and killing young boys? In the movie’s description, it says that he’s a Satanist. Perhaps, the killer thinks that he’s doing Satan’s bidding by killing these young men. However, there is no real indication that The Grabber is devoted to Satan other than the satanic appearance of his mask.
Also, why does The Grabber only kidnap boys? Does he have some sort of sexual motivation? Was he abused by his own father as a child? There are no intimate scenes with The Grabber that gives the audience a peek into the nature of his psychosis.
My other issue with this film was the fact that Gwen’s psychic powers seemed utterly superfluous. Her communications with the dead don’t lead to the rescue of Finney. In the end, Finney rescues himself.
Yes, Gwen is able to lead the police to the burial site of the other victims. But would they not have discovered those other victims after Finney escaped and told his story anyway?
It seemed to me that Gwen’s psychic abilities did little if anything to forward the plot. The same can be said of the abusive nature of Finney and Gwen’s relationship with their father.
Also, as a side note, this film seemed to have a strange hyperfocus on adolescent violence. Every kid in the film is so engrossed by streetfighting that the violence is almost glorified in this movie. There’s no final moral revelation that conveys to the audience that violence is bad. Instead, it’s violence that ultimately leads to the protagonist’s triumph.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, I found that The Black Phone was an entertaining film. Mason Thames and Madeline McGraw both shined in their respective roles and the brother-sister relationship between their two characters was heartwarming if not downright adorable.
Ethan Hawke’s performance as The Grabber was also solid. Though, I don’t think the script allowed him to achieve his character’s full potential.
Unfortunately, apart from a few jump-scares, I didn’t find The Black Phone to be all that scary. The movie’s main villain is undeveloped to the point where the audience has no reason to be afraid of him. There also seemed to be several aspects of the movie (such as Gwen’s psychic powers and The Grabber’s supposed satanic beliefs) that were entirely unnecessary.
Yes, The Black Phone is worth a watch. No, you’re probably not going to walk away from this film with any moral revelations or residual fear.