The Black Phone is the next in a line of smart horror/thrillers from Blumhouse Productions following, among others, Split, Happy Death Day, The Invisible Man and Jordan Peele’s two brilliant films Get Out and Us. This didn’t put me in mind of any of these movies though, rather it made me think of the superb Turkish language social drama Mustang.
That film, about a group of sisters who are oppressed by the patriarchal muslim community they live in, has at its heart a superb character in thirteen year old Lale who is an absolute powerhouse of growing feminist indignation and agency. This is a girl who faces a huge amount of unjust sexist treatment from parental figures but stands up to it where she can and is not prepared to be ignored or patronised. It is genuinely inspiring stuff from such a young player. See the film if you can.
The Black Phone is not as powerful as Mustang but even with its supernatural trappings it deals with its own real world issues and features a similar figure to Lale in the protagonist’s little sister Gwen. She may be a supporting player but she embeds the film with a strong feminist subtext and pretty much steals the show
The set up is that Gwen and her brother Finney are living with their abusive father in late 1970’s America and then children in the town start to go missing. Gwen’s fortitude starts to show when, due to details about the abductions that she somehow knows, she is interviewed by the police. It is funny to see one so young and ostensibly innocent cussing out and mocking the cops, but there is tragedy there when you start to clock why she is probably doing it. When you see her face off against her father when he is at his worst you realise that this is a kid who can’t stand up to the man she has at home for fear of being hurt by him, so instead acts out and answers back to other patriarchal authority figures that she knows don’t present this same threat. It is heartbreaking but also empowered. Her relationship with Jesus, the greatest benign male icon of all, is amusing too. She swears at him during prayer and then starts to question his very existence. (An existence, incidentally, that is arguably confirmed later on depending on how you choose to read it.)
The performance from adolescent actor Madeline McGraw is electric throughout. When Finney himself is kidnapped the attention is mostly diverted from her but she remains a strong force in the film and is key to the resolution.
The main thrust of The Black Phone follows Finney as he tries to survive and escape his capture. This is all compelling by itself. The abductor is a very creepy Ethan Hawke, who has every potential to find a place in the echelons of great movie psychos, and the phone of the title is the item that holds Finney’s best hope, for reasons I won’t discuss here. Mason Thames is strong in the lead and manages provide the film with huge amounts of emotion and heart himself. As such The Black Phone does not rely on Gwen but she most certainly enhances it. It is a nice sophisticated thriller that walks the line between real and supernatural horrors effectively. The fact that it also features the best female character of 2022 so far is just feminist icing on the cake.
In fact it is dual factor of the two kids that ultimately gives the film its message. For me The Black Phone is a film about how the young, boys and girls alike, can fight together against dangerous toxic masculinity. This is an important theme and it makes this an important film.