The thing I love about speculative fiction (horror, sci-fi, contemporary fantasy) is those stories aren’t just about monsters or spaceships or time travel. They serve as broad canvases to explore different facets of humanity. Dragons and Ice Zombies in Game of Thrones are window dressing for a story about the lust for power. The task of fighting vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a metaphor for the tumultuous transition to adulthood.
Recently I saw a horror movie titled The Black Phone that was not just about a teenage boy locked in a basement by a sadistic madman who got help from previous dead victims via a dead phone. The story was not about ghosts. It was about child abuse.
The Black Phone (not sure how I feel about the title), starring Ethan Hawke and based on a short story by Joe Hill, is about a child abductor nicknamed the Grabber who terrorizes a Denver suburb. He kidnaps teenage Finney and locks him in the basement. In this basement is the black phone of the title that doesn’t work, except it does. (WARNING: spoilers ahead). Finney has a touch of ESP, and that ESP allows him to communicate with the boys who the Grabber kidnapped and murdered before him. Those boys barely know who they are anymore. Their murders left them that traumatized, but they’re able to give Finney advice that leads him to tools that may help him survive.
First off, The Black Phone is really well done. At no point did I find my mind wandering. I didn’t get bored. It took me a while to get into it, but that’s more of a Kevin quirk than an actual criticism. The ‘70s details are fun (before my time, so I can’t relate or critique), the suspense and thrills are well placed and well spaced, and the writing and acting were strong. If you like horror, you’ll love this movie.
So, about the child abuse. In the real world it’s a topic rarely touched. The Black Phone didn’t shy away from it.
One of the earliest shots shows Finney and his sister Gwen tiptoeing around their angry father, a nasty drunk mourning the suicide of his wife. Gwen (like Finney and their mother) has ESP abilities, which their father literally tries to beat out of her. This, not the kidnapping or murders, was the most horrific scene of the movie. For anyone who’s experienced something similar, it will be a killer scene to watch. For those lucky enough to never have suffered abuse, hopefully it will be a little easier to watch.
It’s not profound or especially insightful to say that abuse warps children. Gwen is defiant and violent. Finney is passive to a fault. Both learned lessons from their abuse (Gwen: fight fire with fire. Finney: weakness). By the end Finney learns that sometimes you have to fight back, if just to survive. The second to last scene gutted me. After Finney kills the Grabber, he and his sister huddle in the back of the ambulance. Their father runs to them and sobs apologies at their feet. They stare at him, blankly. He’s repentant, but they’re already broken. That scene rang so true.
But the final scene of The Black Phone, the one just after that ambulance scene, told a different story. Throughout the movie, Finney was tormented by bullies. In the last scene, Finney, now legendary for killing the Grabber, struts through the halls of his school, ready to claim the love of the girl he crushes on.
It was a good ending, but it left me with a doubt I could only make sense of when I read an interview with the director. For him, the movie was about being bullied. In that narrative framework that absurdly triumphant last scene make sense. But the realities of child abuse tell a different story. In the real world Finney would have a long, long road ahead of him. He’d face a mighty struggle to reclaim his sense of self and his sense of power.
We rarely talk about the effects of physical abuse on children, including in fiction. Horror is the exception. To me, the movie Hereditary was about a woman abused by her mother pass on that abuse to her children. In The Babadook, a mother lashes out at her difficult son, using her grief as an excuse. Add The Black Phone to this thin cannon (I don’t count Carrie–the mother was too cartoonish). All three movies presented the parents as sympathetic. They usually are. But they didn’t flinch at showing us a glimpse of the horror that children experience as a result of their physical abuse.