In the grey and overcast Denver suburb that is the setting of The Black Phone (2022), an unapprehended figure known as “the Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) has been abducting and murdering children. No one knows who he is, but Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) has dreams of a man with black balloons. When Gwen’s brother, Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) is abducted by the Grabber, he is not left alone to suffer the fate of the others. Imprisoned in the Grabber’s basement, Finney discovers a black phone that connects him with the Grabber’s previous victims, each of whom share with Finney what they learned about the Grabber and possible means of escape before they died. Piecing these bits of information together, Finney is able to form a plan to defeat the Grabber and escape.
(Spoiler alerts ahead!)
The film is based on a short story of the same name (2005) by Joe Hill – an author who is hit or miss for me. While I found the writing of the short story somewhat lacking, I love the film adaptation. This is a dream-like film; I was struck by how the aspects of supernatural horror evenly meshed with the realistic ones. For instance, the man with the black balloons and his basement are surreally nightmarish, and the viewer is never really sure if he is a supernatural monster or as natural as the inept parents and police force of the town. I was genuinely surprised when the police found the Grabber’s house and he died at Finney’s hands like a regular mortal. Even the dialogue between Finney, the Grabber, and the Grabber’s victims is similar to the way people talk in dreams.
In addition to the points mentioned, I appreciate this movie for the coming of age story that it is. Finney grows through adopting the collective wisdom of the dead children, although at times doubting whether it will work for him when it didn’t work for them. Like Finney, we learn from our past failures–our dead selves–in order to escape present circumstances and emerge into the future.
Stories about Cold War kids who ride bicycles, have special abilities, and fight monsters are a bit cliché by now (Stranger Things, It), but I am here for the formulaic comfort food. The Black Phone is currently in theaters.