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Film / The Black Phone

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"The phone is dead. And it's ringing."

The Black Phone is a 2021 horror film directed by Scott Derrickson. It was written by Derrickson and his Sinister and Doctor Strange (2016) collaborator C. Robert Cargill based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill from his collection 20th Century Ghosts. Hill also executive produces.

Set in 1978 in Denver, Colorado, the film follows Finney (newcomer Mason Thames), a young boy who is kidnapped by a Serial Killer (Ethan Hawke) and is trapped in his basement. His only chance for escape is to use a mysterious phone that allows him to contact the killer's past victims.

The film was produced by Jason Blum through Blumhouse Productions. It was released on June 24, 2022 note .

A sequel is in development with a planned release of June 27, 2025.

Previews: Trailer 1, Trailer 2

Tropes featured in The Black Phone include:

  • Abusive Parents: Finney and Gwen’s father is an alcoholic who violently spanks Gwen because of her prophetic dreams causing the police to question him at his workplace since Gwen knew details about the case she couldn't have possibly known. After getting Finn back alive at the end, he apologizes and perhaps will change his ways.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Gwen's profanity-laced rant towards the detectives causes Detective Wright to noticeably smirk despite him trying to maintain his professional demeanor.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The Grabber is described as being "grotesquely fat" in the original short story, as well as having a shaven head. He's played in the film by Ethan Hawke, who is slim and has shoulder-length hair. James Ransone, who has a similar figure, likewise plays the killer's brother Max, who in the story has a "round and plump" face and receding hairline.
  • Adaptation Expansion: As the movie is based on a short story, it naturally adds a lot of new material to stretch the story to movie length. These include the subplot of Finney's father being abusive, Finney's ill-fated first escape attempt, and both Finney's sister and the Grabber's brother getting more focus than they did in the short story.
  • Adaptational Job Change: The Grabber refers to himself as a clown in the original short story. In the film, he’s a magician. The change was to avoid comparisons to Pennywise.
  • Adaptational Name Change: Finney’s sister in the short story, Susannah, is renamed Gwen in the film. Her mentioning a friend named Suzy may be a nod to this.
  • Adaptational Superpower Change: In the original story, Finney’s sister is stated to have a psychic link with her brother. Here, her psychic abilities are portrayed more as prophetic visions.
  • Age Lift: Finney’s older sister in the short story is changed to his nine-year-old younger sister Gwen in the film.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Played with: the Grabber owns a large dog named Samson, which barks during Finney's first escape attempt, and is later used to guard the exit to the basement when the Grabber plans to kill Finney, but the dog is never shown harming anyone, and is dealt with by Finney distracting it with a steak.
  • Asshole Victim: Finney finally kills and gets his revenge on The Grabber during the climax before finally escaping. Considering the trauma he caused Finney and the other 5 kids he kidnapped and murdered, you're not going to feel sorry for him.
  • Ax-Crazy: The Grabber descends into this once his captives show themselves to be "naughty boys" and give him an excuse to unleash his rage. This becomes quite literal in the film's climax when the Grabber wields an ax to deadly effect when he kills his brother.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The police are shown breaking into the house Gwen saw in her dreams during the climax while Finney is having his final showdown with his captor in the basement, but the house the cops broke into is a completely different, empty house. But BUT, it's where the Grabber buried his victims' bodies and right across the street from where Finney is being held.
  • Balloon of Doom: the Grabber's signature prop for his abductions: a large bundle of black balloons.
  • Barbaric Bully: Buzz, Matty and Matt are a trio of bullies who target Finney. As soon as the Grabber removes Robin from the picture they jump Finney and beat the shit out of him 3 on 1 for absolutely no reason.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Finney is notably more mild-mannered and less physically aggressive than many of the Grabber's previous victims. The Grabber quickly begins to realize that this does not mean that Finney will not fight to kill if he feels he has to.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Finney successfully defeats the Grabber and escapes his imprisonment and is then found and rescued by Gwen and the police. Not only that but Finney is now popular among his classmates, has more confidence, and is no longer bullied. On the bad side of things, Gwen and Finney still have to live with their abusive father (who has at least apologized for his behavior) and Finney will no doubt be traumatized for life from his kidnapping. Not to mention the fact that Bruce and the other boys are still dead and their families have to deal with that.
  • Calling Card: the Grabber always has a bundle of black balloons when he abducts a victim, which he leaves at the scene. Gwen knows about this from her dreams, which puts her in touch with the police as they did not release this information.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: The phone calls themselves prove to be this when every single piece of advice they give Finney all come crashing together in a five-minute period during the film's climax to allow him to kill The Grabber and escape his cell. The exposed cable, window bars, and pit that Finney attempted to use for his earlier escape plans are used as a pit trap, the weighted phone helps him beat the injured Grabber, and even the seemingly failed attempt to escape via the freezer provides Finney with some frozen steaks that he uses to distract the Grabber's guard dog, enabling him to escape.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Finney's "mint" throwing arm from playing pitcher for his baseball team is what enables him to give The Grabber a Neck Snap-by-phone-cord-garrote.
  • Corporal Punishment: Gwen gets a very hard spanking and then, while sobbing, is told not to ice her bottom.
  • Cowardly Lion: Finney is this in spades. He is initially shown as being unwilling to confront his bullies and abusive father or even initiate a conversation with his crush. Once the Grabber enters the picture, Finney more than rises to the occasion by being the first of The Grabber's victims to injure him during the initial kidnapping, threatens to scratch his face to make sure that he has a Revealing Injury as soon as he is able to talk, and eventually killing him with nothing but a broken phone receiver and his bare hands.
  • Creepy Stalker Van: The Grabber rides around in a large black van to abduct his victims.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: A character in this movie gets his leg broken, bludgeoned in the head, and strangled with a cord, ending with a Neck Snap. That character is the Grabber, who of course deserves every single second of it.
  • Darkest Hour: Finney manages to dig through the wall into the back of the freezer only to find it locked from the outside just like the room is. This is the final setback that completely defeats Finney and causes him to break down in tears for the first time in the film. Minutes later he gets a phone call from the ghost of his friend Robin which gives him the Heroic Second Wind he needs to make one last attempt at freedom.
  • Deathly Unmasking: The Grabber wears his devil mask in almost every scene, but Finney pulls it off during their final struggle — which directly leads to the Grabber's death as he panics and scrambles to cover his face, which allows Finn to strangle him.
  • Defiant to the End: Zigzagged. After Finney traps him and beats the shit out of him, the Grabber just laughs maniacally and loudly at him, until Finney manages to knock off his mask, upon which he screams frantically and tries to cover his face.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The movie takes place in 1978 and multiple instances that would have serious consequences in 2022 are treated as irrelevant or normal.
    • Gwen's bottom is spanked very hard with her father's belt. In those days "a good spanking" was often seen as an essential part of child discipline.
    • Robin beats another boy bloody on school grounds and is later seen calmly taping up his hands, apparently not even getting in trouble for the fight.
    • The two detectives spot obvious cocaine on Max's table and only condescendingly suggest he "clean up his mess" before his brother gets home.
    • Children are still allowed to walk home from school despite a Serial Killer having kidnapped several boys over the course of what seems to be mere months.
  • Delicious Distraction: The Angry Guard Dog is distracted by a steak Finn takes out of the freezer.
  • Don't Look At Me: The Grabber has this reaction when his mask comes off at the end.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: Finney and Gwen's father gives Gwen's bottom a vicious spanking with a belt in an effort to discourage her from believing in her psychic powers. The Grabber's modus operandi also echoes corporal punishment — he uses a knife to finish his victims off, but he prefers to beat them with a belt first as punishment for "disobeying" him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Finney and Gwen's mother committed suicide, which their father believes to have been a result of her believing in her psychic dreams.
  • Enemy Mine: The ghost of Vance doesn't actually care about Finney, he just hates the Grabber.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Finney's father is shown to be easily upset by any sort of noise early in the morning, hinting at his status as The Alcoholic. Similarly, his constant irritation with his children and how fearful they are of upsetting him hints at him being an abusive parent.
    • Robin, who is taken by the Grabber before Finney is kidnapped, is introduced by beating up a larger student until the latter is bleeding. This demonstration of his fighting skills serves to make the fact that he is taken and murdered all the more shocking to the characters.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Horrifically twisted. The Grabber has a brother named Max whom he affectionately refers to as "my idiot," but that does not stop him from brutally killing Max when he finds Finney in the basement and realizes that his brother was The Grabber. He then proceeds to blame Finney for Max's death at his own hands.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Finney and Gwen's father gives Gwen a good spanking with his belt for believing that her psychic dreams are real.
  • Friendly Ghost: Or at the very least, ghosts who want to spare our hero their fate. One of the ghosts actually is Finney’s friend, Robin, who was abducted a few days before he was. It is actually Robin who gives Finney the encouragement he needs to get through his Darkest Hour for one last grab at freedom.
  • Ghost Amnesia: The ghosts struggle to remember their names, only recalling fragmented details from their past.
  • Heel Realization: Finney and Gwen's father, who after the climax, having realized that his daughter's visions are real and helped solve the Grabber case, and sees her with his now safe and sound son, falls to his knees and tearfully begs his children for forgiveness.
  • Hope Spot: Unlike all of the previous victims Finney not only gets out of the basement, but actually manages to escape the house entirely while the Grabber is sleeping and then proceeds to run down the street screaming for help. Unfortunately, the Grabber catches up to him at the last possible second halfway down the block and holds him at knifepoint until the neighbors awoken by his screams go back to sleep.
  • Improvised Weapon: The titular black phone's handset, which Finney packs with dirt at Robin's instructions to give it heft, is used first to punch the Grabber's lights out while he's stuck in the pit trap with a twisted/broken ankle, and then when he's sufficiently incapacitated uses the cord as a garrote to snap his neck.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: An early hint that Gwen's visions are accurate is that she reports that the Grabber carried black balloons, a detail the police did not release to the public.
  • Just Toying with Them: the Grabber likes to play the “naughty boy” game with his victims, leaving the basement door unlocked and waiting outside to violently beat them for trying to leave without permission. At one point he offers to let Finney go and asks his name. Finney gives him a fake one and the Grabber immediately reveals a newspaper article containing Finn's real name and says “Too bad, I was almost going to let you go.”
  • Little Miss Badass: Gwen. Throughout the film, despite her small physical stature, she does not hesitate to provide ample demonstrations of this trope: giving a withering profanity-laced response to one of the detectives questioning her when he sort of implies she might have something to do with the Grabber (due to her dreams giving her information not released to the public); splitting open the head of a bully beating up her brother with a rock the size of a baby's head; and fearlessly tracking down the housing unit where the Grabber commits his crimes note  by herself.
  • Make an Example of Them: While talking to Finney about his fight with Moose, Robin admits that he knew Moose was done when he threw him to the ground, and that beating Moose's face to a bloody pulp when he couldn't even fight back was for the benefit of making a point to those watching the fight. If the reaction of the bullies later on is any indication, they got the message.
  • Mask of Confidence: anytime the Grabber is with Finney, he wears his devil mask (see below). At the very end, when Finn pulls the mask off, it reduces the Grabber to a gibbering coward who lets go of Finn in order to try and cover his own face. This proves to be his undoing.
  • Menacing Mask: in almost all his scenes, the Grabber wears a finely detailed demonic mask with interchangeable mouthpieces displaying different facial expressions, though sometimes he just wears the upper part (making it more like a theatre mask) or the lower part.
  • Mundanger: The antagonist is a regular human serial killer, whereas the supernatural elements (the voices of the ghost children and Gwen's premonitions) are all instrumental in saving Finney's life.
  • Muscles Are Meaningless: Even after days of imprisonment, implied malnourishment, and some accumulated injuries, Finney is still capable of hammering a hole through a wall using a toilet tank lid, and snaps the Grabber's neck with a telephone receiver cord at the end of the movie.
  • Neck Snap: The Grabber ends up killed courtesy of one of these with a phone receiver cord used as an improvised garrotte.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The Grabber, as the film reveals almost nothing about his past or the reasons for kidnapping and murdering preteen and teenaged boys by playing the "naughty boys" game.
  • Phone Call from the Dead: The titular phone that allows the main character to communicate with the killer's victims.
  • Police Are Useless: Played realistically: Denver's police department in the 1970s predictably struggles to catch a serial killer, especially a meticulous one who takes steps like soundproofing his basement and buying a different house to store the victims' corpses in. It takes Gwen's psychic dreams for them to get a break in the case, and in the finale, they don't play a role in freeing Finney or killing the Grabber.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: not the Grabber, but Finney's three bullies call him homophobic slurs.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: As in the short story, Finney tells the Grabber "It's for you" before pressing the black phone to the killer's ear, allowing him to hear his victims' ghosts taunting him before Finney snaps his neck.
  • Psychic Children: Gwen experiences dreams about the Grabber's victims and the location of his house.
  • Schmuck Bait: The Grabber leaves the door of his basement unlocked every night to tempt his captives into attempting to flee. As Billy warns Finney, it's a trap and he's waiting at the top of the stairs to beat him with a belt for trying.
  • Serial Killer: The main antagonist, the Grabber, has made a name for himself abducting children, imprisoning them, and then killing them when they get "naughty".
  • Shared Universe: Scott Derrickson's segment of V/H/S 85 focuses on an uncle and cousin of Finney's and Gwen's who also have psychic powers; Gwen herself is directly mentioned.
  • Shout-Out: During one of Gwen's dreams, The Grabber suddenly materializes holding a bunch of balloons, much like Pennywise.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Gwen who despite being a little girl swears more than any of the other characters combined.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: The Grabber rarely raises his voice above a normal volume and whispers what is probably the film's most graphic threat to Finney after Finney makes his first escape, threatening to "gut [him] like a pig".
  • Suburban Gothic: The film plays on a lot of the same anxieties about stranger danger, stalkers and abductions present in Halloween (which is appropriate, since they both are set in 1978), the killer wandering about just out of sight throughout the film. Set in the suburbs of Everytown, America, the Grabber kidnaps Finney in the middle of the street in broad daylight, and he manages to recapture him when he escapes with only porch lights coming on from his cries for help. Even when Gwen has dreams of the house where his victim's bodies are buried, the address number has to be spelled out to her because the houses look similar to each other.
  • Supernatural Phone: The titular Black Phone is in Finney's holding cell after the Grabber kidnaps him. Through this phone, the ghosts of the Grabber's previous victims can talk to Finney, encouraging him to Dare to Be Badass and to not give up, as well as give him some ideas as to how to escape. Even when the phone itself is ripped off of the receiver at the end of the film, it still rings one last time as a way for the Grabber's victims to taunt the Grabber with his imminent death at the hands of Finney giving the Grabber a Neck Snap.
  • Superpowerful Genetics: Psychic powers appear to be hereditary, as Finney and Gwen's mother is described as having experienced dream visions like Gwen, while Finney's ability to hear the ghosts' messages via the phone is implied to have a connection to these abilities (as one of the ghosts mention that the phone rang for the previous victims, but they never heard it).
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The Grabber. The movie goes hard with having him hide his face and always wearing differing masks to reflect his emotions. But near the end, Finney knocks off his mask, showing his face to be just as everyone else's, but even then The Grabber becomes incredibly infuriated at losing his mask.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Finney goes from a kid who runs from bullies and has to be defended by other students or his younger sister to someone who improvises a succession of escape plans, kills a notorious serial killer, and finds the courage to sit with his crush and talk to her.
  • Torture Cellar: Finney spends most of the movie locked up in the Grabber's basement, where he's already tortured and murdered several children.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Most of kids in this movie behave in an extremely violent manner, doing things to each other that would land an adult in prison for assault. Examples include the savage beating Robin gives Moose just for the benefit of the other kids watching, three bullies literally stomping on Finney, Gwen cracking open the head of one of them with a huge rock and getting soccer-kicked in the jaw as retaliation. Any one of those things could have landed the kid on the receiving end on the hospital, or dead.
  • Waif-Fu: Robin is a rare male example, being a slender boy with no real musculature who is regarded as the toughest kid in school, able to beat up bullies much larger than him.
  • Wham Shot: Part way through the movie the police interview Max, an eccentric drug addict and all around loser who is living with his brother and is obsessed with the case. The police brush off his theories as cocaine-induced ramblings and Max goes right back to his theories once they leave. Then the camera pans to reveal that unbeknownst to Max and the police, Finney is being kept locked up in the basement of that very house thereby revealing Max's brother as the Grabber.
  • White Mask of Doom: the Grabber's creepy devil mask, which is off-white and has different mouth attachments to reflect his moods. He's even wearing it on the poster.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Grabber had killed five kids prior to the film, with the intent of making Finney his sixth victim.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Finney manages to escape the house halfway through the film only for the Grabber to catch him again before he get can get anyone's attention.