The Black Phone Is One of the Year's Best Films
In the early 70s, a serial killer named John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered at least 33 boys and young men, 26 of whom were found buried under his house. He was known as the ‘Killer Clown’, having rendered public service as a clown following his release from prison for the sodomy of a 15-year-old boy. Gacy’s story shocked the world and melded into the zeitgeist, no doubt partially inspiring Stephen King’s It. King has gone on record to say that it was actually Ronald McDonald (there was always something sus about that clown) that inspired Pennywise, but we know better.
At any rate, Gacy definitely inspired writer Joe Hill, King’s son, to write the short story The Black Phone, a gripping tale about an abductor dressed as a clown victimizing young boys in the ’70s. Because of the recent remake of his father’s novel, Hill and director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, the Exorcism of Emily Rose) decided to change the character of The Grabber from a clown to a magician who wears a creepy mask and cast Ethan Hawke in the role.
Hawke, whose most memorable roles might still be as the good guy from Reality Bites or Training Day, is in unfamiliar territory playing a child murderer but he absolutely flourishes as The Grabber. It’s Hawke’s performance, along with brilliance from young stars Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, who play siblings Finney and Gwen, that elevate the film beyond your average thriller. Presented with Derrickson’s moody colors and textures, as well as his masterful control of the screen’s space, The Black Phone is pure cinematic delight.
It’s the observation of cyclical violence that raises The Black Phone a grade above most horror films.
The film is far less horrific than the reality that inspired it, with a significantly lower body count and the absence of rape. But it covers extremely important ground by focusing on the violence that children are exposed to at home and in school, holding up an ugly mirror to a society that normalizes corporal punishment and turns a blind eye to bullying. More than the jump scares, of which there are actually few, it’s the observation of cyclical violence that raises The Black Phone a grade above most horror films.
It is less a scare fest than it is an examination of how adults and the system have failed its children. Finney and Gwen’s alcoholic father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) physically punishes Gwen for her supernatural visions, and when the girl yells out as she’s being hit, the performance is so powerful it’s absolutely heartbreaking. But violence and trauma are cyclical, so when Terrence’s own demons are revealed as the story unfolds, he is humanized in a way that forces us to examine our own responses and how we view domestic abuse.
Derrickson juxtaposes normalized violence with Finney’s own pacifism, clearly a response to the treatment he and his sister receive at home, and manages to craft growth and triumph of character in the time that he is abducted by The Grabber until the end of the film. Although the film only skims the surface of The Grabber’s history and motivation, there is enough to let audiences know that he is a product of a violent household.
Interestingly, The Grabber himself is as human as the rest of us, which makes the thesis of the film all the more horrifying. In contrast, The Grabber’s victims form a procession of spirits who take turns to talk to Finn and attempt to help him through his captivity. While they aren’t the malevolent entities typically found in horror films, their sheer supernatural state makes their every appearance a hair-raising experience. The film deftly flips the notion that ghosts are the enemy, and the victims haunting Finney is actually a really good thing, no matter how frightening or macabre.
Derrickson delivers each jump scare and heart-stopping moment with the precision and control of a surgeon.
Hawke embraces his role as the menacing Grabber completely, and if his name weren’t in the credits, you’d likely forget that it’s him at all. Instead, there is this hulking, sweaty, fifty-year-old man with a belt and a creepy mask who is just waiting to mete out punishment and it’s terrifying. He is domestic violence and child abuse enfleshed, and he doesn’t need anything supernatural to make you jump from your seat.
Ultimately, The Black Phone isn’t about delivering the scariest moments or the most violent deaths. Derrickson delivers each jump scare and heart-stopping moment with the precision and control of a surgeon, spreading key scenes throughout the film in order to tell a more important story. In fact, the bloodiest, most violent scene doesn’t involve The Grabber at all, but rather a boy who takes down a known bully but overcompensates. Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill utilize this scene, early in the film, to make audiences immediately take a hard look at violence as a response to any stimuli.
The fact that Derrickson deliberately minimizes The Grabber’s violence and keeps it mostly as a threat legitimized only by the appearance of his spectral victims is a stroke of genius. Hill’s story is also multi-layered and the parallels between Terrence and The Grabber are one of the key points that only make sense at the end when Terrence faces a realization that The Grabber never does.
Derrickson’s storytelling is sublime, and when he sets the film in the ’70s, it isn’t merely for flavor but to reinforce ideas like the fact that intergenerational trauma and family violence have always been around and are still familiar to audiences today. Bullying is also one of The Black Phone’s underlying themes and Derrickson makes sure to punctuate the flow of the story with a punch or whipping with a belt.
The Black Phone is one of the year’s best films, with brilliant visuals and exceptional acting from the entire cast. It delivers just adequate scares but more importantly, a catharsis that audiences never knew they needed. Few horror films have such a satisfying arc, and for those who want a reprieve from some of life’s actual horrors, The Black Phone is a film where audiences can come away with just a small spark of hope.
The Black Phone is now showing in cinemas nationwide.