Is The Black Phone Scarily Grotesque or Grotesquely Scary?

In a summer where audiences cannot get enough ’80s flashbacks, from Top Gun to Stranger Things, the horror film The Black Phone goes in the complete opposite direction. It has a marked disinterest in nostalgia, instead presenting American suburbia in the late 1970s where many characters are sadistic, abusive, and violent. And that is before the film reveals its villain, a disturbed kidnapper who locks teenage boys in his basement. Director Scott Derrickson and his co-screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, crafted a nasty piece of work: a horror film that owes as much to true crime as it does to traditional horror. If parts of the film can be effective, they are undone by a gleeful desire to depict cruelty, juxtaposed with borderline hilarious plot holes.

At first, Derrickson and Cargill use our sense of film history to upend our expectations. Like the classic hangout comedy Dazed and Confused, the film opens with a little league game while Foghat’s “Slow Ride” plays. This should be an opportunity to relax, but soon protagonist Finney (Mason Thames) and his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) witness a brawl among their classmates. Derrickson lingers on the violence. One kid has clearly won the fight, and he still beats his enemy mercilessly, smashing the other’s face until he might suffer brain damage. Right away, the scene obliterates any sense of fun, and a few moments later, Finney finds his father (Jeremy Davies) physically abusing Gwen. The abuse scene is long and uncomfortable, with high tension and actors screaming at the top of their lungs. Paired together, there is a good chance the film may inspire walk-outs before the plot has even been revealed.

Those who stay after the casual violence may regret doing so. All the characters are aware of “The Grabber,” a mysterious serial kidnapper who snatches boys with his black van. He is a real threat with a sense of otherworldly mystery around him, and soon Finney is his latest victim. Ethan Hawke, who last worked with Derrickson in Sinister, plays The Grabber. His performance is exaggerated, almost effeminate, but made wholly uncomfortable through the grotesque masks he prefers to wear (we do not see Hawke’s face until the end of the film). Here, The Black Phone settles into a battle of wills between Finney and The Grabber, who prefers to needle Finney through eccentricity and unpredictable behavior.

It is around this point that Derrick and Cargill—whose screenplay is an adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill—introduce supernatural elements. You may know Hill is Stephen King’s son, and while he is a success in his own right, his father’s influence is apparent quickly, both in the ending and in the story’s focus on latchkey kids in sleepy suburbs who deal with threats both real and imagined. 

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