The (Telephone) Ring
A good premise is powerful. It’s the kind of thing that Hollywood executives fantasize over, and the kind of thing producers worry about screwing up. It can be a license to print money and a way for a movie to guarantee immortality. You know it because as soon as you’re introduced to the premise, you think, “I have to see that.”
I’m not talking about sequels, though. Top Gun: Maverick has made all the money, and deservedly so. But nobody saw it based on the concept, “An over-the-hill fighter pilot must train a group of rookies to undertake a dangerous bombing run.” Instead, audiences saw it because it’s a sequel to an iconic movie from the 80s, it stars Tom Cruise, and it looks cool. The same thing goes for long-running franchises like the MCU.
Instead, a solid and original premise looks something like this::
- A rat yearns to become a gourmet chef.
- In a world of total honesty, one man discovers lying.
- A cop must deal with a bomb on a speeding bus, and if the bus slows down, the bomb explodes.
- Two magicians enter into a vicious game of one-upmanship.
- A man discovers he’s the world’s biggest TV star and that his entire life has been scripted entertainment.
- A cynical weatherman is trapped in a time loop and relives the same day.
The hard part is devising a compelling premise. The fiendishly hard part is executing the premise well. That’s why I adore The Black Phone as much as I do; it’s a great idea that’s beautifully executed.
It’s 1978 in a North Denver neighborhood, and Finney (Mason Thames) is not having an easy childhood. His mother is long dead. His father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) is profoundly damaged, a barely functional alcoholic who will beat his children for the slightest of infractions and drunkenly apologize later. At least Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) has his back. She loves her brother, loves Jesus, and can swear about as well as Tony Soprano. Maybe even better.
School isn’t much better for Finney. He’s a target of bullies and not the kinds that perform the occasional wedgie. These kids are looking to beat the absolute piss out of him, and the only thing stopping them is Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), the toughest kid in school and Finney’s friend. Robin threatens to kick the collective ass of the bullies up one side of the street and down the other. They back off, but they’re still watching.
Also watching is The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). He cruises the suburban Colorado streets and abducts children. Finney and Gwen know a few of the victims. Gwen dreams about them, and her dreams have an unsettling habit of coming true. She knows details about the murders that haven’t been released, and Detectives Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Miller (Troy Rudeseal) have become so desperate that they’re willing to listen to her. And then, Finney gets grabbed.
He awakens in a locked and soundproofed basement. The Grabber brings Finney food, though the young man is under no illusions. He knows his life is measured in days, if not hours. The only strange source of hope is an old, disconnected telephone. It rings. Finney answers it. The voices on the other end are the victims of The Grabber. If it’s the last thing they do, which it will be, they want to help Finney escape before it’s too late.
During interviews, director Scott Derrickson discussed his childhood in Denver, one marred by violence. He must have felt unsafe and it seems he brought that feeling, a kind of curdled nostalgia, to life in The Black Phone. It’s true that there are moments where Finney cracks a smile hanging out with friends, or during the good-natured ribbing between himself and Gwen. Yet nearly every “normal” moment ends with the threat of a beating, the terror of his father’s belt, or strong hands throwing him into a van. The Black Phone is a horror movie and there are moments where I genuinely felt my skin crawl. Derrickson wisely focuses equally on scares as much as Finney’s coming of age. Over and over, he’s told he needs to stand up for himself, and Derrickson makes Finney’s personal growth just as compelling as the nightmare he’s trapped in.
Somebody far smarter than I once wrote that horror is the act of extreme empathy. Screenwriters Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill get that concept innately. A lesser film would focus on jump scares and boogety-boogety-boo action. Instead, Cargill and Derrickson focus on the themes of how children face trauma, whether it’s from a parent, bullies, or a masked serial killer. Yet the screenplay engages those themes in both the moments showing Finney’s home and school life, as well as the bulk of the story which takes place in The Grabber’s basement. It’s a smart and sophisticated piece of writing, and it’s also one of the rare instances where the adaptation surpasses the source material.*
If this film had been miscast, it would have collapsed. If the wrong child actors had been cast in the roles of Finney and Gwen, the film would have imploded. The gods of cinema were generous, however, and the right actors are playing the right roles. As Finney, Mason Thames is the solid, steady center of the film. He carries the narrative with a natural and subtle performance, and Thames has the acting chops to sell Finney’s fear, anger, and resilience. I like a film that shows siblings supporting each other, and Madeline McGraw steals the movie as Gwen. She loves her brother, and when he vanishes, she does everything she can to find him. But Gwen is tough as nails and has a talent for…um…inventive profanity. McGraw has a blast with the role and it shows.
Speaking of the cinema gods, I think we’re also blessed in that a) Ethan Hawke has been evolving into a daring and creative actor and b) Hawke has been on a bit of a genre tear lately with his performances in The Northman, Moon Knight, and here as The Grabber. His masked killer isn’t someone who delights in villainy like the mighty Tim Curry. Instead, Hawke portrays The Grabber as someone in the grip of a horrific compulsion. With fearsome speed, he cycles between a childlike clown and a cold predator. It’s a performance announcing the arrival of a new horror icon.
The Black Phone isn’t just right up my alley. It’s camped out on my front lawn, a smart and disturbing work of horror that fleshes out both the plot and the characters, living and otherwise. Not too many films are able to realize the potential of their premise and leave audiences satisfied. This one does. Big time.
*The Black Phone was originally a very good short story by Joe Hill. He’s an excellent writer & I can’t recommend him enough.