by Victoria Alexander
A creepy horror movie that made me scream out loud.
A Blumhouse Production guarantees the following: a small budget, supposedly “no
interference” and a rather creepy, depressing Middle America landscape. THE BLACK
PHONE is Ethan Hawke’s ninth Blumhouse film. By now, Hawke’s salary must be
outside the constraints of the film’s budget. Showbizgalore.com says Hawke was paid
$700,000. Well, considering Hawke only appears as the killer “The Grabber” in a few
late scenes, I think the salary was generous as well as his probable “back end.”
Oh, The Grabber does appear but I strongly doubt it is Hawke in the mask. The body
type is smaller and frailer than when Hawke takes off the lower part of the multi-mask.
Hawke is splayed out on a chair with his chest exposed and a much larger physical
appearance. Are there two Grabbers?
THE BLACK PHONE is set in North Denver in 1978, which lets us know that the residents are poor, alcoholic and beat their children. When bad things happen here, it’s not an outrage, it’s life just picking on you or your neighbor for no damn reason.
Finney (Mason Thames), is an unhappy 13-year-old. His mother had mental issues and died leaving him and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) in the care of their downtrodden father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Gwen is surprisingly foul mouthed for her age but cruelly belt whipped by Terrence when she continues to talk about her weird, prophetic dreams. It’s a trait her mother had. Gwen prays to Jesus.
There’s someone kidnapping teen boys who are never seen again. Hey, it’s life in North
Denver. Finney is, of course, bullied. Even though one day he pitches a home run for his team.
The coolest, tough kid in school, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), befriends him and tries to instill in Finney the philosophy of standing up for oneself. The school kids named the kidnapper of boys, The Grabber. He drives around town in a black ’70s van with “Abracadabra” written on it announcing the owner is a professional magician. Black balloons are his signature. The detectives have not got a clue. When Robin voluntarily walks towards the van, we wonder whether Robin is in cahoots with The Grabber.
Finally, Finney runs right into The Grabber’s open van and is thrown in. When he wakes
up, he’s in an empty dungeon on a mattress. The only other thing in the room is a black
wall phone. Eventually, a masked man opens the steel-plated door and is very solicitous. He knows Finney is frightened but he says he is not going to hurt him. Meanwhile, after two days, it looks like Finney has been the sixth teen abducted by The Grabber. Gwen tries to use her dreams to find Finney.
The Grabber brings Finney some food and tells him the dungeon is soundproof and escape-proof and the phone does not work, so don’t bother trying to call for help. But the phone keeps ringing and when Finney answers it, the cracked voice appears to be giving him a clue to escape. When that clue fails, the phone keeps ringing. In all, Finney recognizes that the voices are the spirits of the kidnapped boys, who never got out of the dungeon.
Not only is Gwen is insisting Jesus help her find Finney but a neighborhood guy, Max (James Ransome), is a serial killer fan and is following the case closely. He has a map of the area and tells the canvassing detectives that the killer’s lair is close by. Max is not a resident, he’s just visiting his brother who is off working. It’s the most interesting thing that has ever happened in the town.
What makes THE BLACK PHONE work are the scenes between Finney and The Grabber. Finney is told not to make The Grabber mad, or else. The empty dungeon is stripped of music and the only sound I heard was a blood-curdling scream – from me. It is the director, Scott Derrickson’s second film with Hawke. They made the 2012 horror movie, SINISTER together.
It’s a tribute to the production that we never see any torture or know anything about the boys who were previously abducted. We assume they made The Grabber mad. The center of the film is Finney’s attempts to escape. The denouement is clever, intelligent and does not rely of Jesus’s intervention.
I cannot dismiss The Grabber’s provocative mask and it could be the challenge to the iconic face on the cover of Whitley Streiber’s Communion. It will be the Halloween mask of 2022 and if Blumhouse sends out masks, I want one. I’ll trade my FRIDAY THE 13TH mask for one.
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