Based on the short story of the same name, written by Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King, “The Black Phone” chronicles a suspenseful tale of The Grabber, a child killer who snatches teen boys in broad daylight never to be seen again. When Finney (Mason Thames) becomes the next captive, held in a soundproof basement, he begins to receive phone calls from The Grabber’s previous victims through a disconnected landline.
Stylistically, the film is nostalgic, reminiscent of vintage photographs and the era of striped baby tees, flared jeans, and The Ramones. Warm browns and oranges, film grain, and filtered light flood the screen. But this idyllic ’70s suburbia is corrupted by Derrickson’s horror.
The only interruption of the otherwise consistent color scheme is the vibrancy of blood and the neon of police lights, making these moments all the more jarring. The weathered concrete of the basement is painted with brushstrokes of rust and blood: an evidential mural of violence unfettered. The upbeat ’70s soundtrack is interrupted by a bassy, resonant score that reverberates in your ribs, sinks into your eardrums, and at times sounds like you’re hearing it from underground in the Grabber’s basement. The film’s opening credits flash through nostalgic B-roll of the halcyon everyday occurrences of suburban youth—popsicles, baseball games, and sunny avenues—only to be interlaced with the vision of bloody knees and stacks of missing persons posters.
This juxtaposition of calm and collection being face forward while violence festers underneath is not only stylistic, but thematic. Timid Finney and his spunky sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), after dealing with belligerent bullies at school, go home to not be raised by their abusive alcoholic father. “I’ll look after Dad,” becomes a pattern of dialogue throughout the film, when Finney is left to return home while his sister stays with a friend. Son looks after father and siblings raise each other, kids protect each other from bullies while school staff is absent during adolescent brawls, Gwen (with her clairvoyant abilities) leads the police investigation, and past victims communicate with Finney while he’s in the clutches of a killer. It’s this commonality of a child-to-child support system in the absence of reliable adults that makes “The Black Phone” more than a simple story.