Friday, July 1, 2022

‘The Black Phone’ Fleshes Out a Lean and Mean Tale: Comparing the Short Story and the Movie

Joe Hill’s darkest short story comes to the big screen in Scott Derrickson’s latest film, The Black Phone. Derrickson reunites with Sinister co-writer C. Robert Cargill and star Ethan Hawke to expand and adapt the 7th story in Hill’s award winning collection “20th Century Ghosts.”

Finney (Mason Thames) is a 13-year old boy struggling to dodge the bullies at school and an alcoholic father at home. His only ally is his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who may or may not have inherited a psychic talent from her late mother. When Finney is dragged into a sinister van by a part-time magician and full-time child murderer known as The Grabber (Hawke), he winds up in a basement cell containing only a dirty mattress and a mysterious black phone. Finney begins receiving calls on the broken device from the Grabber’s previous victims giving him encouragement and clues to survive his awful predicament. 

At just nineteen pages, Hill’s original tale is lean and mean, beginning with Finney’s abduction and otherwise taking place entirely within the Grabber’s basement. The reader stays with the frightened boy through the duration of the story, creating a terrifying feeling of claustrophobia and helplessness. In an interview with /Film, Hill said, “When I wrote it, I could feel it struggling to become a novel.” Hill envisioned additional layers of the story, including more victims and calls, but says he “lacked the confidence to write it as a novel.” Hill’s entire story is present in the film adaptation including some exchanges pulled word for word from the original text. But as the author told Meagan Navarro of Bloody Disgusting, “that’s only about 40 minutes of the film,” presenting Derrickson and Cargill with the challenge of creating the longer story Hill originally intended to write. 

The film begins with these additions, what Hill describes as a “deeply autobiographical thread about life in the 1970s in the Midwest.” Finney meets future victim Bruce (Tristan Pravong) as the two boys square off on the baseball field. Another future victim named Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) defends Finney from school bullies. But the majority of Derrickson’s additions involve Finney’s troubled home life, his spunky sister Gwen and his abusive father Terrance (Jeremy Davies). The first scene in Hill’s story, the Grabber dropping his groceries in order to lure Finney to his van, does not occur until at least 30 minutes into the film. Rather than stay with Finney in the basement, Derrickson continually cuts back and forth between his attempts to escape and Gwen’s efforts to find him. These additions significantly alter the tone of the original story for better or worse depending on what kind of horror movie you’re looking for. 

Black Phone short story grabber

The Grabber and The Mask

In a rare villainous turn, Hawke portrays the infamous child murderer with an eerie flare and diabolical glee. Both versions of the story reveal little about this terrifying man, but what we do learn veers in opposite directions. Hill’s villain is named Al, an extremely overweight part-time clown who often reads as more pathetic than terrifying. Tousling Finney’s hair and sneaking down to the basement just to look at him, Al seems as much driven by a need for companionship as his urge to kill. It’s easier to believe him when he says he is not the killer, giving Finney and the reader a tiny shred of hope in the dark basement cell. Hill’s description contains shades of fatphobia, making the character less malevolent and more pitiable, and adding darker nuance to the story. 

Hawke’s Grabber is fully evil, perhaps due to the shock of seeing the well-known actor victimize children. At first seen only in glimpses, he dresses the part of an amateur magician with white face paint and a black cloak and top hat. Once Finney is in his lair, he dons a sinister mask inspired by depression era magicians who would first perform devilish sorcery then reappear for a heroic second act. Created by special effects legend Tom Savini, the mask appears in several different variations, perhaps alluding to the mood of the Grabber or more likely the current stage of his killing ritual. Derrickson also introduces an element of his murders called the “Naughty Boy” Game which seems to involve laying a trap for his victims then viciously beating them as punishment for their contrived transgression. 

One of the film’s most chilling sequences is another addition in which Finney nearly escapes from the basement. After refusing to take the bait of an unlocked door, Finney creeps upstairs past the masked killer who has fallen asleep waiting for him. Armed with information gleaned from a call with a previous victim, Finney silently struggles with the combination lock on the kitchen door. He finally opens it, but wakes the sleeping Grabber who charges out into the night after him. It’s one of the few moments in the film where we see Hawke’s face while he drags Finney to the ground and threatens to kill him if he makes a sound. His voice drops to a gravelly whisper as he threatens to gut Finney and strangle him with his own intestines, creating a haunting juxtaposition between Hawke’s movie star persona and the Grabber’s horrific crimes. 

Mason Thames

Finney’s Family

Another major addition to the source material revolves around Finney’s home life. Only mentioned in Hill’s story, Finney recalls his parents arguing about the Grabber and imagines their responses to his disappearance. He has an older sister named Susannah who flirts with the occult, reading Tarot and once using a stethoscope held to Finney’s forehead to accurately guess a series of playing cards. But Hill’s Finney is not overly concerned with his family, simply trying to escape the Grabber’s basement. He imagines his sister biking down street after street in search of him, an image Derrickson and Cargill use to spark a significant portion of their adaptation.

Derrickson’s Gwen is roughly the same age as Finney and the two share a close bond likely due to the the recent death of their mother and abuse suffered at the hands of their alcoholic father.  Rather than Tarot cards and mysticism, Gwen receives her visions from God in the form of dreams that sometimes come true. Her father fears these abilities and tells Gwen that her mother couldn’t handle the weight of a similar gift and died by suicide to escape it, but it’s unclear what she was afraid of. This part of the story feels vague and thinly conceived, aligning much more closely to the world of occult spirituality than Christianity. Though scenes where Gwen questions her faith are charming, the entire plot line feels muddled and confusing. 

Gwen is a fun character and McGraw’s high-pitched voice spitting out creative curse words to grown-ups infuses the dark story with humor. She is also scrappy and proactive, jumping into the fray to defend Finney from the bullies who are attacking him. But her most memorable scene sees her receive a brutal beating from her father for telling detectives about her visions. McGraw’s pleading cries as she tries to escape are heartbreaking and perhaps scarier than any of Finney’s scenes in the basement. Davies plays Terrance as a cruel and unstable drunk adding a darker element to the already pitch black story. It’s unclear when he started drinking or what their life was like before their mother died, but Finney and Gwen live a tense home life dominated by their father’s hangovers and beatings. Derrickson makes an uncomfortable comparison between the Grabber and Terrance as both men use belts to beat children. But this is another plot point that feels poorly fleshed out. Is this connection intentional? Are we meant to believe that Finney has escaped one monster only to wind up in the clutches of another? 

These additions to the story are intriguing on their own, but feel tonally jarring in comparison to Finney’s abduction. Every time we leave the basement, we lose a little bit of tension. Gwen gives us another character to identify with, allowing us the safety of following her story rather than waiting in terror with Finney. Her storyline also undercuts the empowerment of Finney’s escape. Derrickson tries to have it both ways and allows Finney to kill the Grabber and save himself as Gwen uses her psychic gift to find the house he’s being kept in. The benefit of staying with him the entire time is that we’re able to completely focus on his own accomplishment, but Gwen’s plotline, charming as it is, steals focus away from his victory. Equally frustrating is Terrance’s abrupt turn once Finney has been found. The abusive father approaches his two children in tears as they huddle together in the back of an ambulance. While his apology is welcome in theory, Terrance’s plea for forgiveness feels unearned and disingenuous given the extent of the abuse we’ve already seen. 

Black Phone short story joe hill

Robin and the Other Victims

The film’s central relationship follows Finney and his contact with the Grabber’s previous victims and each call brings a bit of helpful information or a tool he can use to escape. Bruce is the first to call, delivering a heartbreaking line about not remembering his name because “it’s the first thing you lose” in death. This ominous statement packs a heartbreaking punch in Derrickson’s film, especially combined with home video footage of Bruce’s childhood. In addition to warnings about the “Naughty Boy” Game, one of the callers alerts Finney to a rope hidden within the room. Another helps him locate a hole he dug in the flooring under the tiles. An angry bully named Vance (Brady Hepner) tells him how to break through one of the walls into a freezer on the other side. None of these clues delivers Finney’s salvation on its own, but each tidbit allows him to construct a plan in which he is able to trap and kill the Grabber. As the calls progress, we begin to see the victims in the room, adding insight into their grisly deaths and foreshadowing Finney’s own impending doom. 

Hill’s Finney receives several vague calls from Bruce who instructs him to pack the receiver with sand. As Finney chokes the Grabber with the cord, the phone begins to ring again. In a fist-pumping closer, Finney tells the Grabber, “It’s for you” and puts the receiver to his ear. This is where Hill’s story ends, leaving the reader to assume that Finney makes it out of the basement safely. Derrickson ups the emotional ante and allows the Grabber’s victims to speak to their murder, hurling his own ominous phrases back at him. He also includes an emotional scene in which Robin consoles Finney and encourages him once again to stand up for himself. Earlier scenes between Robin and Finney are touching, but this final conversation veers into the saccharine, creating an odd tonal shift from Vance’s previous anger that he has to help save Finney but could not save himself. 

While Hill’s story ends with a knockout punch, Derrickson’s film concludes with an unnecessary coda where police explain the Grabber’s two homes and Finney returns to school with newfound confidence. While nice to see a character we’ve emotionally invested in succeed, the adapted ending transforms the terrifying tale into a horrific coming of age drama. Hill’s father Stephen King reportedly described Derrickson’s film as “”Stand By Me” in hell,” and it’s hard to disagree. Derrickson’s Finney learns a valuable life lesson and soldiers on, stronger for what he’s been through. Hill’s original story is much harsher, an unrelenting trip to hell with no comfort to be found. 

While both versions have their merits, the film’s adaptation only succeeds for viewers wanting a feel good ending to a story about a child murderer. Others may wish additions to the story had given more information about the Grabber’s previous crimes. Derrickson hints at the “Naughty Boy” Game, but never expands on his motives or modus operandi. The sheer number of additions to the source material begs the question, is the film version of “the Black Phone” an improvement on the source material or does it lessen the stakes of a cold and terrifying story? With such a dramatic tonal shift, the answer depends entirely on what type of horror you’re looking for. 

Black Phone short story

The post ‘The Black Phone’ Fleshes Out a Lean and Mean Tale: Comparing the Short Story and the Movie appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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