The Black Phone – Plugged In

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Movie Review

The phone hangs on the wall, black and dead. Dead as the children who slept there, ate there, were beaten there.

Were murdered there.

Finney’s not the first boy to find himself in this cracked, barren Denver basement in 1978. The man—The Grabber, people call him—prepared the place well. The bed is fastened to the floor. The toilet stands in a corner. The metal door latches tightly. The basement is soundproofed by The Grabber’s own hands. If Finney screams, he’s assured, no one will hear.

Finney knows he’s right. But when The Grabber leaves the room, he screams all the same—desperate, panicked wails that he hopes may work through a crack in the wall, a seam in the basement window (six feet up, and barred).

But no one heard the others’ screams. Not those from Bruce, the budding baseball star Finney nearly struck out that summer. Not Robin, Finney’s tough, worldly wise friend. They all screamed, Finney knows. They all disappeared just the same.

The phone—with a rotary dial and a cut cord—is a relic from an earlier time. A happier one, perhaps. Finney doesn’t know why The Grabber left it there. Perhaps he’s never gotten around to taking it down. Perhaps he likes the way it looks. Perhaps, somewhere in his twisted brain, he enjoys the irony: a beacon of hope in that hopeless place; a symbol of connection where lives are disconnected.

Finney knows that, unless something remarkable happens—something ­miraculous—he’ll die here, like the others.

The dead phone hangs on the wall, almost mocking any thought of escape, any miracle.

And then it rings.

Positive Elements

Finney’s life wasn’t so hot even before The Grabber got him. The 13-year-old was bullied and sometimes beaten at school. His father was abusive, too—drowning long-held grief in alcohol and rage.

But amid those trials, Finney formed an enviable relationship with his younger sister, Gwen. The two support each other. And when Gwen stays the night at a friend’s house, Finney promises to “look after Dad.” And so Finn does—gently removing glasses from his father’s sleeping hand and picking up the trash.

Finney’s protected from those school bullies to some extent by Robin, his small-but-resourceful friend. When a handful of bigger boys prepare to beat up Finney in a bathroom, Robin fortuitously walks in—telling the bullies that if they mess with Finn, he’ll mess with them (albeit using far more colorful language). And even though they’re all a foot taller than Robin, too, they back off.

And when Robin’s not available to protect Finney, Gwen is: When the bullies waylay Finney, Gwen sees what’s happening and flies into the fight—doing her best to protect her big bro.

Once Finney is nabbed by The Grabber, he receives some unexpected encouragement. He’s told that in spite of his passivity in the face of all that bullying, he’s stronger than he gives himself credit for.

And he is.

Spiritual Elements

In most supernaturally tinged horror stories, evil is the supernatural force, while help is more tactile and tangible: Ghosts are dispelled by the dawn, vampires are killed by wooden stakes.

The Black Phone flips that script. Here, evil is as solid and obvious as the flesh-and-blood stranger down the street. But help, it seems, comes from beyond.

Some of that help comes directly through the black phone itself. Through that phone, Finney is able to talk with the Grabber’s previous victims—all of whom have something important to tell him. The afterlife they’re in doesn’t sound particularly nice: We don’t know much about it, but one boy tells Finney that they don’t play baseball there, while another says that knowledge of their names is the first thing they lose. It feels as though their souls may be slowly fading—perhaps holding on to get a measure of revenge on their killer.

But another, more Christian, element mingles with that black phone.

Gwen, we learn, has dreams that she says sometimes come true. (Her mother was also apparently “touched” in the same way.) But she also prays to Jesus, hiding a trove of religious paraphernalia (a cross, a Gideon’s New Testament Bible, a picture of Mary, among other things) in her dollhouse. Her father doesn’t approve of her dreams, and he’d likely not approve of all that praying, either. But when Finney’s kidnapped, Gwen prays fervently and passionately—asking Jesus for dreams that might help her find and rescue her brother.

Her relationship with the Almighty isn’t postcard perfect. She bargains (saying she’ll follow Jesus for the rest of her life if He just helps her) and lashes out with an angry, obscene rant when her dreams seem to add up to nothing. She wonders aloud whether Jesus is even real.

But the movie suggests (without baldly stating) that He is. And even though Gwen acknowledges that Jesus doesn’t often interfere with what’s happening down on Earth, she asks for an exception—and it seems like He gives her one.

We see crosses elsewhere, too. The Grabber almost always wears a mask, and most have horns on them—making him look like a devil. Finney worries about an urban legend that you shouldn’t say The Grabber’s name out loud.

Sexual Content

We never see The Grabber molest anyone, but we can infer that The Grabber’s motives are at least partly sexual. All his victims are boys, and most are young teens. When Finney wakes up in his basement prison, he sees The Grabber staring at him. Finney asks what he’s doing, and his abductor says, “I just wanted to look at you.”

He sets traps for his victims, we’re told—waiting for them to do something “bad” as he waits and watches, without a shirt and a belt in his hand. When they do this “bad” thing (such as trying to escape), they become “naughty boys,” and The Grabber’s “game” moves into another stage.

Finney’s bullies insinuate that he’s gay—calling him a “fairy,” along with other crude names. That appears not to be the case: Finney seems to have a crush on a particular girl. And when that girl volunteers to be his partner in science lab, Gwen teases him about his new “girlfriend” all the way home.

Violent Content

Believe it or not, The Black Phone’s most violent moments may happen outside those basement walls—and The Grabber is clearly not the only one enamored with violence.

Take Robin, Finney’s bully-beating pal. We see a much bigger kid challenge him to a fight, which Robin viciously accepts. Not only does he win, but he straddles the guy and punches him repeatedly in the face until it’s covered with blood. He later tells Finney that he didn’t want to go that far. But he also knew the fight had an audience, and Robin wanted to send a stronger message: “The more blood, the better—for the crowd.”

A trio of bullies does eventually catch up to Finney. They throw him to the ground and kick him repeatedly. When sister Gwen tries to rescue him, she roundhouses one of Finney’s attackers, knocking him out of the action. But someone eventually punches Gwen right in the mouth, too: She and the guy she coldcocked sit side by side after that, incapacitated and bleeding from their injuries while the bullies keep up their assault on Finney.

Another teen fights with a handful of others in a convenience store. Everyone suffers their share of injuries, and one teen carves a set of numbers into another’s forearm with a knife.

As mentioned, Finney and Gwen’s father, Terrence, is abusive. We see him beat Gwen savagely on the rump with a belt (the actual blows are outside the camera’s range)—his way of “encouraging” her not to believe that her dreams are anything more than dreams. [Spoiler Warning] We learn that Gwen’s mother also had dreams that seemed to foretell reality and the future, and it eventually drove her to suicide.

We see visions or ghosts of The Grabber’s other victims covered in their injuries. One seems suspended in the air, his frontside facing the ceiling and his back bending more than perhaps it should. Someone is killed via an axe to the head; another victim is strangled to death. Someone’s leg snaps. People are beaten, sometimes with weapons. One of The Grabber’s victims tells him that it’s part of the “game” for The Grabber to beat his victims with a belt until they pass out.

Finney uses a toy rocket ship to carve a huge gash in The Grabber’s arm. We see graves where The Grabber has buried his victims. He threatens to gut Finney “like a pig” if he makes a noise, and then strangle the boy with his own intestines. A class prepares to dissect frogs. Bloody injuries are featured prominently in the opening credits.

Robin praises the movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Finney, who says his dad would never let him watch an R-rated movie. He does watch an old-time horror flick on TV, though, once his father passes out for the night: The movie, though mostly in black and white, does feature a great deal of bright red blood—including a bathtub full of the stuff from which a hand slowly emerges.

Crude or Profane Language

Nearly 30 f-words litter the dialogue here. Many of them are uttered by Finney’s little sister, Gwen, and directed at bullies, police officers and Jesus Himself. We hear about a dozen instances of the s-word, along with sporadic uses of “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “f-g.” God’s name is paired with “d–n” at least three times, and Jesus’ name is abused once.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Finney and Gwen’s father drinks constantly. We first meet Terrence as he’s recovering from a hangover. He almost always has some sort of drink in his hand, and he rarely seems completely sober. In an effort to get Terrence to stop beating her, Gwen dangles a mostly empty bottle of vodka over the kitchen floor, telling him she’ll drop it if he whips her again. He calls her bluff, she drops it, and the resulting beating takes on added ferocity.

The police question a character named Max, a guy who has been following the cases of the missing boys closely and has a number of theories about where the killer lives. The detectives are unimpressed—perhaps, in part, because of mostly sniffed cocaine lines on the coffee table. They tell Max he should probably clean up: Max curses the oversight, then sniffs another line of cocaine.

The Grabber sprays something in the eyes of his victims, which temporarily blind them. Finney worries that the scrambled eggs that The Grabber gives him are drugged. The Grabber wonders why he’d need to drug the eggs when the boy’s already down in the basement.

Other Negative Elements

Finney drinks toilet water in the Grabber’s basement. Gwen can be rather disrespectful to authority figures.

Conclusion

The Black Phone is a horror flick with heart. But that doesn’t make it any less horrific.

It’s based on a short story by Joe Hill, who just happens to be son of famed horror author Stephen King. And while Hill has won numerous writing awards himself, this story seems to pluck liberally from his father’s catalog: kids in danger; supernatural twists; seemingly random events that come together to form a neat, surprisingly intricate, conclusion.

In the hands of Scott Derrickson, a director who’s spoken before of his Christian faith, that story becomes a springboard to explore aspects of that faith. Gwen struggles to believe when her dreams seem to lead to nowhere. Finney nearly gives up on the phone, when all the advice he receives from beyond the grave doesn’t seem to work.

The phone itself becomes a symbol of belief, in fact. The Grabber heard it ring once, but he passed it off as static electricity. Finney’s later told that the Grabber doesn’t hear it because he doesn’t want to hear it. For those who are familiar with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, it reminds me a little of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. In the book, the lion Aslan is a Christ figure who comes to sing the Narnia into being. But Andrew refuses to see Aslan as anything more than a lion, and eventually he hears not his song, but just a series of horrible roars.

But while all that may elevate The Black Phone a cut above your normal horror flick, the cut still sinks pretty deep.

The story focuses on a serial killer who preys on boys—many of whom don’t make it and (the movie suggests) suffered badly. Blood and gore are relatively restrained for an R-rated film, but there’s still enough of it to warrant that restrictive rating. And even if there wasn’t a drop of blood, the profanity itself would push it well outside the remotest family-friendly territory.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for The Black Phone, is it?

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