Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone” is undoubtedly one of the most intense horror films of the year. Dark psychological layers are quite visible in Derrickson’s approach to deliver horror elements on screen, the same style which we had already witnessed in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” directed by him . We can also experience the similar technique in his “Sinister” series, where psychological aspects go hand in hand with the horror elements. Here, in “The Black Phone,” Derrickson juggles between empathy and horror, which makes the film more layered than most of his previous work.
The Characters In ‘The Black Phone’
The story of “The Black Phone” takes place in a small town in Denver, Colorado. Now, to understand the characters, you need to know how people in small places react to incidents such as child kidnapping and murder. The town is full of middle-class people going through a challenging phase in their lives. At the beginning of the film, we can see Finney’s (Mason Thames) dad, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), reading a newspaper named “Rocky Mountain News”. The paper is filled with news like inequitable military pensions, housing market struggles, etc. So, you know the struggle of the American society of the 70s-80s during which film is set in. Let’s discuss the characters who were mainly involved throughout the film:
Terrence: Terrence is a worker at “Rocky Flats”, a nuclear facility in town. He had lost his wife, who was suffering from a mental illness and declared that she could see things in her dreams. Terrence apparently had a chaotic life, which was the reason why he loved silence so much. Even when Finney creates noise while chewing, he gets irritated. This irritation may come from working at the nuclear facility all day, which makes him hate any high-pitched sounds. He is an alcoholic and an abusive father. Although Terrence loves his children, the fear of losing loved ones makes him a pathetic father. He is always in a state of denial. He despises the fact that his daughter Gwen, like her mother, possesses supernatural abilities, and he fears losing her as he did his wife.
Finney: Finney is the protagonist of the film. He perfectly represents a teenage kid who thinks less of himself. He loves a girl (Donna, played by Rebecca Clarke) in his class but never talks to her, worrying that she might not like him back. He fears getting into a fight, knowing he can not win one. Other students are always bullying him; he sometimes even keeps himself locked in the bathroom to avoid the bullies. Although he was a good pitcher in baseball, he lacked confidence in almost every step of his life. We can see how he reacts after the two successful throws. He got very nervous and lost all faith, therefore giving a home run to the rival team. Finney is an introvert, and sometimes it gets very difficult for him to interact with the other kids in the neighborhood. The problem is that, while he doesn’t like hanging out with them, they pick him as a target, creating more trouble for him. Maybe the problem for Finney is his passion. He belongs to a small town and wants to be a rocket scientist. People from small places generally don’t have big dreams. Finney always carries a small rocket with him. He doesn’t like violence so much, but the people around him are all physically abusive.
Gwen: The most crucial and significant character in the film is Gwen. Played by the very talented Madeleine McGraw, the character carries the same powers as her mother. She dreams of events she never witnessed, and all her dreams happen to be true. She is confident and fights her own battles every day. She has faith in Jesus Christ and doesn’t let anyone from school bully her. She loves her brother Finney and fears her father, because of his unpredictable temperament. She has a playhouse in her room where she keeps a cross, a copy of the New Testament, a picture of Mother Mary, and a fish-like structure with “Jesus” written on it. She uses them, thinking that Jesus is the one who is giving her the visions. She hides them in her playhouse because her father hates the fact that she believes in these visions.
The Grabber: Played by Ethan Hawke, the Grabber is the antagonist who kidnaps children in the town, kills them and buries him in a house. He owns a van that says he is a part-time magician. He wears a mask and underneath generally has white makeup, resembling a clown, to hide his face. He could listen to the ringing of the Black Phone, although he never answered it except once. He kidnaps the kids and takes them to a basement in his house, where he behaves very gently with the kids in the beginning, leaves the door open, and waits for the kids to try an escape. He stays on the other side of the door with a belt in his hand. And as soon as a child tries to flee, he beats him /her to death. This is a game he named “naughty boy” himself. In this game, he represents abusive parents around the world who punish their children by viciously beating them. He probably believes that these are the naghty kids who don’t listen to their parents or elders and thus deserve to be punished physically.
The Ghosts: The Grabber killed at least five children, and they all became ghosts. The ghosts altogether helped Finney from the beginning to escape from the Grabber. They also helped Gwen to find the place where Finney was kept. The spirits wanted to kill the Grabber, and the only way to do that was to help Finney build up the confidence to defeat him. They succeeded in their goal as Finney could finally kill the Grabber with their help. The first ghost to talk with Finney was Bruce Yamada, who once praised him for being a good pitcher at baseball. He helped Finney to find the loose tile in front of the toilet and advised him to dig deep there. The next ghost to call on Finney was Billy Showalter, the paperboy. He helped Finney find the hidden long cable with which he broke the window’s grill. The ghost of Griffin Stagg (probably) almost helped Finney escape from the clutches of the Grabber. Finally, there was Vance Hooper, who explained to Finney a way out through the freezer, and lastly, there was the ghost of Robin, who taught Finney how to punch the Grabber with the receiver.
‘The Black Phone’ Theme Explained
Scott Derrickson has very precisely depicted the theme of the film. In this coming-of-age drama, the protagonist transforms with time. After being captured by the Grabber, Finney develops a certain kind of confidence in himself. Joe Hill’s short story “The Black Phone” was 30 pages long, and how Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill adapted the screenplay for a full-length feature apparently demands praise. The writers subtly captured the tiniest of emotions from the short story; thus, the actual theme of the movie became much more vibrant. The fight between the good and the evil and the sacrifice, was the main essence of the story. If you look at Finney, you will notice how self-confident he was at the movie’s end. In the beginning, he was afraid to even talk to Donna, the girl he liked, but at the end of the film, we can see Finney talking to her without hesitation. Thus, the makers kept the movie’s theme very sharp throughout. Yes, it was a horror movie, but the theme had this coming-of-age treatment from the beginning. In many ways, the mentality of the whole town improved with the Grabber’s death, and there was nothing to be afraid of.
There are so many metaphors used in the film that make us privy to the maker’s haunted past. Scott Derrickson himself could relate to the short story as he grew up in a violent neighborhood in North Denver. So, using some of the incidents from his childhood memories, he established his concept of horror. This leads to the fundamental question: why do most horror films have child protagonists? Like in “The Black Phone,” Finney was not ready to take down the real-life threats around us. The majority of us do experience fear, more so at a tender age. But, we all have to fight our fears one day, and the adolescent age is the best age bracket to show a character going through a transition. This is where metaphors play a crucial role.
Scott Derrickson wanted to use Gwen as a central character in the outside world. Her ability to have real dreams makes her the most powerful character in the movie, alongside Finney and the Grabber. Her pursuit to find her brother also signifies the motherly nature of a sister looking for her brother. Gwen was a strong female protagonist who fought not only against all the odds in the outside world but also against her father. Her opinions were never cared for until the very end, which is basically what happens to women in the real world. The main reason for having a female character in this story was to put some soul into it.
The Brother-Sister Relationship: One of the central themes of the film is the relationship between Finney and Gwen. Their chemistry appears to become the film’s soul, evolving into an ultimate weapon that eliminates The Grabber’s threat. When Gwen was being punished by Terrence, their father, Finney wanted to help her so badly; instead, he stood and watched. However, Gwen placed her head on Finney’s shoulder in search of comfort. In fact, Gwen even saved Finney from getting bullied; in the process, she hurt herself. The brother and sister always had each other’s backs, which is one of the things that helps children get through all the troubles around them.
The Goal Of The Ghosts: Even when Vance Hopper (Brady Hepner) comes to the play, he used to scare Finney, telling him what terrifying things are ahead of him. Vance Hopper accompanied Gwen to where the Grabber took all the children. This sync was only possible because of Finney and Gwen’s terrific bonding. When Finney thanked Vance for helping him, Vance screamed at him, saying this was not about him getting out, but all of this was for The Grabber to be killed. The ghosts’ main goal was to help Finney and Gwen so that they can destroy The Grabber together and let the world know about what happened to them.
The Symbolism In ‘The Black Phone’ Explained
Some specific symbols made the movie even more enjoyable. Let’s start with the Black Phone first.
Why Did The Grabber Never Pick Up The Black Phone?
The phone represents the Grabber’s dark psychic layers. The Grabber tells Finney to hang up the phone several times, as he believes the phone had no connection. He ignores the ringing of the phone as he knows deep down that it is the murdered children who are calling him to remind him of his sins. He knows that if he picks up the receiver, his past will confront him and ask him to end whatever he intends to do with the children. He doesn’t want to stop, and he is afraid of the confrontation so he never picks up the phone. Although the Grabber tells Finney that he once picked up the phone, there was no one on the other side. Probably, he lied.
What Was The Significance Of The Black Phone To Finney?
Finney had interactions with the murdered children through the black phone. The black phone helped him put an end to The Grabber by giving away crucial pieces of information. We can see the phone receiver is used to kill the Grabber. Every ghost pointed out the specific ways to trap the Grabber and get rid of him. Everything was precisely planned through the black phone, from breaking the window grill to learning how to swing the receiver at the Grabber. The phone’s cord was used to choke the Grabber, and in the end, Finney finally placed the receiver in the Grabber’s ear. The dead children screamed at him together.
Why Did The Grabber Wear A Mask?
Grabber hides his face behind the mask because he is ashamed of his actions and doesn’t want to reveal his real self to the children that he was going to kill. It’s just a fear that resides within his subconscious, which is why he wears a mask or paints his face. He always tries to hide his soul from the ghosts by doing that. Also, when Finney threatens him that he will scratch his face to let others know that something is wrong, we can conclude that he used the mask to protect himself from any injury. But, if we talk about what symbols the mask carries, it purely demonstrates a tool the Grabber used to hide his shameful face or probably to create an alternate identity of his own, which he believed had the liberty to kill the children who deserved punishment. In a way, whoever the Grabber might be, might be suffering from a split personality disorder, and while the one without the mask lived a pretty ordinary life, the one with the mask became a threatening serial killer who believed that he was bringing justice to the world, more like a superhero complex.
Why Did The Grabber Play Naughty Boy?
The Grabber once told Finney that he had never heard the black phone ring since he was a kid. It can be concluded that the Grabber was kept there by his father, and he wished to ask for help through the phone. His father would open the door and wait for him to escape. When the Grabber ran from the basement as a kid, his father would grab and beat him with the belt. While beating him, his father might have called him a “naughty boy,” which somehow got deeply buried inside Grabber’s consciousness. So, he now plays the same game with the kids he captures. In some ways, the Grabber we see can be a victim of childhood abuse too.
Gwen’s Visions- Who Was Behind Them? Jesus Christ Or The Ghosts?
Gwen always believed that she had the visions only because she prayed to Jesus Christ every time. Every time a ghost named Finney appears, there is a jump cut that takes us to the ghost’s previous life. In the next scene, we see Gwen either riding her bike or dreaming. Gwen seemed to have established more connections with the ghosts with each interaction Finney had with them. Like in the case of Bruce Yamada, Gwen was not part of the dream, but we can assume there might be a connection. For the ghost of the paperboy, we do get an assurance that Gwen can gradually interact with the ghost as well. When Vance Hooper’s ghost talks with Finney, we see that Gwen was literally with him when the Grabber abducted him. Lastly, when Gwen finally saw all the ghosts together for the first time, it was in front of the house where the Grabber usually dumped the kids. So, the ghosts let Gwen see the visions and helped her find Finney.
What Was Not In The Book?
Firstly, Susannah’s name is changed to Gwen. Then, the dialogue “Your arm is mint.” “You almost had me,” was never in the book. Originally it was, “You are dirty.” Bruce Yamada is the only victim who talks to Finney on the black phone. There is no paperboy or robin. In the book, the only weapon that Finney uses to kill the Grabber is the phone. There were no other things like ropes and grills. In the book, the Grabber is grotesquely fat and a clown. There were even no masks in the book. But, Scott Derrickson had a conversation with Joe Hill, and the author suggested making Grabber the magician, to which the director agreed.
This film is supposedly a horror genre, yes, but it talks about a lot of things. Apart from the fact that we must overcome our fears and stand up for ourselves to face the challenges, this film also talks about abusive parents. Children should always be nurtured with the utmost care. Beating them for any random reason can leave a permanent physical, mental, or emotional scar from which they might not ever recover. This abuse also generates a certain kind of rage or agony inside a person that, if kept hidden or untreated for a longer period, may worsen. Most serial killers or mentally traumatized people suffering from schizophrenia, depression, or anxiety come from having had abusive parents in the past. So, this film points a finger toward the parents who are mean to their children. It is high time now to stop abusing children.