Should you pick up 'The Black Phone'? : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the supernatural horror film The Black Phone, Ethan Hawke plays the Grabber, a sinister masked figure who abducts a series of teenage boys in a Colorado suburb. When 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) gets grabbed, he's locked in a dank basement, waiting to be murdered, when suddenly a disconnected telephone on the wall starts to ring.

Should you pick up 'The Black Phone'?

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

A warning - this episode contains discussion of child physical and sexual abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: In the supernatural horror film "The Black Phone," Ethan Hawke plays The Grabber, a sinister masked figure who abducts a series of teenage boys in a Colorado suburb. When 13-year-old Finney gets grabbed, he's locked in a dank basement, waiting to be murdered when suddenly a disconnected telephone on the wall starts to ring. Who's on the other end and what they tell him is what this latest film from director Scott Derrickson is all about. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "The Black Phone" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: Joining me today is Kristen Meinzer, co-host of the new podcast "Romance Road Test," where she and her husband try questionable relationship hacks, so you don't have to. She's also the co-host of "Movie Therapy With Rafer & Kristen." Welcome back, Kristen.

KRISTEN MEINZER: Hi. Nice to be back.

WELDON: Great to have you. And also with us is Jordan Crucchiola, a writer and producer and host of the podcast "Feeling Seen" on Maximum Fun. Hey, Jordan.

JORDAN CRUCCHIOLA: Hello. Thank you for having me back.

WELDON: Of course. Let's get into this. In "The Black Phone," Mason Thames plays Finney, a shy 13-year-old kid who lives in a 1978 Colorado suburb. He gets bullied at school by the usual cohort of middle school punks and at home by his alcoholic father, who's played by Jeremy Davies. Madeleine McGraw plays his younger sister, Gwen. She starts having unsettling dreams about someone who's been abducting teenage boys. When Finney gets grabbed, he's locked in a basement and taunted by The Grabber - that's Ethan Hawke in a variety of seriously creepy masks - with a series of increasingly sinister mind games. But Finney has help in the form of phone calls from young men who claim to be The Grabber's previous victims. Meanwhile, Gwen's visions get stronger and increasingly disturbing, signaling that Finney's time is running out.

"The Black Phone" is based on a short story by Joe Hill and directed by Scott Derrickson. He also directed another horror film starring Ethan Hawke, 2012's "Sinister," as well as the first "Doctor Strange" movie. Kristen, let me start with you. Did you pick up this phone?

(LAUGHTER)

MEINZER: I did, but I did not dial it because I still don't quite understand how to use a rotary phone. I'm sorry. But I picked up that phone. I listened to what it had to say. Sometimes I felt it was a little too reliant on the supernatural elements. I wanted our main character, Finn, to have maybe a little bit more agency, a little bit more cleverness. I wanted maybe a few breadcrumbs before he was abducted that showed that he was capable of fighting back and winning against any predator, which - we didn't get any of that, unfortunately, in the lead-up to the abduction.

But all that being said, I will say that I screamed very, very loudly. I covered my face multiple times. There were definitely some very, very scary moments. And sadly, some of the scariest did not actually come about because of supernatural elements or because of the headline-grabbing abduction but because of the very real abuse that he and his sister experience at home. So I was terrified at various points, but I'm not sure if I was always terrified at the moments the filmmakers wanted me to be terrified at.

WELDON: Oh, that's interesting. Jordan, what about you? What'd you think?

CRUCCHIOLA: This movie scared me, I think, exactly when it wanted to scare me. There's one sort of turn-and-reveal moment that I will in no way spoil that - like, I jolted so hard I, like, hit both my funny bones on...

(LAUGHTER)

CRUCCHIOLA: ...The armchair rests on either side. You could feel the entire room brace at that moment. C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson, who again work together, again reuniting with Ethan Hawke after "Sinister," which is incredibly scary - these guys know how to make a good scary movie. They know how to structure it. They know how to scare the daylights out of you. I trust in their technical abilities completely.

I had an issue with the way that this movie insidiously deploys gay-face on its villain. I think to the movie's credit, the way it keeps it implicit - there is an implicit sexual abuse dimension to the kidnappings and the killings that The Grabber has been perpetrating throughout and before the timeline of this movie. There seems to be multiple personas at work with The Grabber character, and he has a tendency to slip into this, like, mincing and fey kind of sensibility at times, where it's like, listen, y'all - we understand the nature of the crimes at hand here. You don't need to give me, like, the full Ernest Thesiger thing...

WELDON: Sure.

CRUCCHIOLA: ...To let me know that this guy is real scary. It's like, no, we got that covered.

WELDON: (Laughter).

CRUCCHIOLA: I didn't need to, like, feel like he was extra unsettling because he aligns with stereotypically queer, villainous mannerisms.

WELDON: Yeah.

CRUCCHIOLA: So I recommend it as a great scary movie. And I don't expect this to be a bother for everyone, not even for every queer person. But for me, I felt like it was worth noting that there is a bit of an asterisk next to it that I carry some concerns with as I recommend it to people.

WELDON: That's interesting. You're both talking about your reactions to The Grabber character as played by Ethan Hawke. Kristen, the film's supernatural component is a thing that you felt maybe could have been a crutch at times when you wanted a little bit more action, and, Jordan, you're reacting to Hawke's performance itself, which I think what you're - both are saying in different ways is that this kind of horror - and maybe this is why this film - you know, I liked it for what it was, didn't grab me too much.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: This is the kind of horror that is not delving into the vagaries of the human psyche or even the criminal psyche. This is - here with this kind of horror, we're dealing with the notion of pure evil, right? Makes it mythic. Makes it symbolic. But it also takes a lot of nuance off the table. And so the character that Ethan Hawke is playing - and I think the filmmakers would be very upfront about this - is not so much a character. It's more a boogeyman, an archetype. And if you can roll with that, I think it's a ride.

CRUCCHIOLA: Right. And I just - I will always bristle at how often the boogeyman has been suspiciously queer. I think the thing that got me was, like, you guys are good at your job. You can do a maniacal joker clown figure, which he kind of does a little bit, and not present that. Heath Ledger did it for an entire movie and won an Oscar for it. I feel like at the beginning of the movie, too, like, it does that thing of, like, hey, guys, we're going to show you that it's a different time because this kid's going to say something racist, and this kid's going to say something homophobic. And it's like, any of these elements that I really bristled at in this way that felt just, like, completely ornamentally regressive, you could snip, snip, snip - take them all out of the movie. The movie doesn't change at all. Structure's still tight. Scares are still good.

And it just feels like, let's put this window dressing on because, like, we miss when people could just, like, say this stuff, and it wasn't really a problem. Yeah, but we're not of that time. And none of, like, the little drop-ins of racism and homophobia cashed in on anyway - other than when to be, like, listen, guys, we already know these kids are [expletive]. They're going to beat up our main character multiple times.

WELDON: Yeah.

CRUCCHIOLA: We don't need to know the extra ways in which, like, the '70s were a hardscrabble kind of time on the streets for kids.

WELDON: Absolutely. Now, Kristen, what did you think of the Ethan Hawke performance, though, as The Grabber?

MEINZER: You know, I wasn't always clear on what he was trying to do. At some...

WELDON: Yeah.

MEINZER: ...Moments, I thought, oh, he's definitely trying to be delightful to children as a clown. You know, I'm a performer at birthday parties. I have balloons. And other times I felt he was almost trying to channel a little boy himself and try to be childlike and so on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BLACK PHONE")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As The Grabber) I was really starting to like you, Finney. I almost let you go.

MEINZER: That being said, I don't even know if I can, you know, give that much credit or blame to Ethan Hawke because he honestly isn't even on screen that much.

WELDON: This is what I was going to say.

MEINZER: When he is on screen, most of the time his face is covered, so we don't get to see his facial acting even.

CRUCCHIOLA: And the masks are terrifying.

MEINZER: The masks are so scary, yes.

CRUCCHIOLA: Props to that costuming and prop department. Those masks are incredible, and they are deployed in this movie perfectly.

MEINZER: Yeah. But a lot of the times, you know, it's just like, he's sitting in a chair in the kitchen and may or may not be awake with one of those scary masks on and no shirt while holding a belt.

WELDON: Yeah.

MEINZER: And I feel like, you know, Ethan Hawke could do that, but maybe some random Joe off the street could do that, too.

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

MEINZER: So again, I don't know if I can give much credit or blame to Ethan Hawke for how good or not good this role is. And I think, collectively, he's probably on screen for only 15 minutes.

WELDON: Yeah, Kristen, you're picking up on something that I picked up on, too. I mean, first of all, as you guys are both saying, the masks by Tom Savini, you're going to see those masks this Halloween. You're not going to want to see those masks this Halloween.

MEINZER: (Laughter).

CRUCCHIOLA: I'm not going to want to. I'm going to want to attack anyone on the street who has that on.

WELDON: It's amazing because those masks get so much screen time, which really should blunt their effect on you, but they don't. They really don't. I do agree, Kristen, though, that Ethan Hawke showed up for this, but what he was giving was so affected and so, you know, behind the masks that I don't know if The Grabber is destined to join, you know, Pennywise and Jason and Freddy and Pinhead and Leatherface and Michael Myers. Do you guys think he is?

MEINZER: I don't think so.

CRUCCHIOLA: I think that iconography of that face - like, I think that is tremendous.

WELDON: Yeah.

CRUCCHIOLA: That is what horror cinema is for - is to give us those things that will haunt us in that way. And I think the performance that Hawke is giving, I think it is - the sort of emphasis of it is trying to come through behind the mask, and I think he's serving that plenty well. I feel like I had a sense of The Grabber. But I - it's the vacillating back and forth between, like, the sort of masculine deep growl and the various personae that he has without knowing anything more about him. Like, we get enough clues. I don't need to know more about The Grabber. But, like, it - that was - really, the only aspect of his performance was just what felt like a strange fall back into an earlier, evocative time of what we should know to be alarmed about, especially as young kids. Like, watch out for that, like, weirdo down the street. And you know he's a weirdo because he wears, like, funny clothes, and he has a high-pitched voice, and his mannerisms are kind of delicate.

I have to give up - if we're going to talk about performances, these children - Mason Thames...

WELDON: Yeah.

CRUCCHIOLA: ...And particularly for me, Madeleine McGraw - they were tremendous. The performances of these kids - the scares are good. The direction is good. But the performances of these kids is carrying this movie. And the - particularly the voice work coming from the actors we don't see on screen, who are communicating with our protagonist - like, incredible child horror acting work in this film.

MEINZER: Yeah, I'll say, in my theater, the audience was not just applauding, but whistling and cheering...

CRUCCHIOLA: Yes.

MEINZER: ...For McGraw. I mean, she is so fierce and so fearless, and she is doing what we wish Finn would do for the whole movie.

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

MEINZER: She is standing up to the bullies. She is not taking crap from anyone. And in some ways - this gets back to what my initial first criticism of the movie was - is sometimes I feel like it would have been nice to see just a little hint that he has that in him, too. That way it doesn't feel like we're relying so heavily on, like, oh, the supernatural is going to save Finn because in a movie like this, we don't want the supernatural to save him. We want him to use his wits. We want him to stand up and fight back and take care of himself. We want him to be like his sister.

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

WELDON: Yeah, absolutely.

CRUCCHIOLA: We are really team sister.

MEINZER: Yes.

WELDON: The adults in this town are pretty useless.

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

MEINZER: So useless.

WELDON: The cops are divulging information they should not be divulging to an 11-year-old girl all over the damn place. So it really does become about Finney and Gwen. They're tasked with saving the day. So the film quickly becomes about the resiliency of kids. And I thought Thames was really good, actually, because what he was doing was not conveying, you know, particular fear, but he was - he has this kind of glare of simmering hatred toward the Ethan Hawke character that I think makes this film - I mean, the film's emotional center is these kids. The character of Gwen doesn't figure largely in the original Joe Hill story, and so that role was really pumped up. And the script gives Gwen a couple of salty monologues. And it's a funny disconnect between here's this sweet moppet, and she's talking like a stevedore. But I don't know if they landed as hard for me as they did for you. Where in general does this film land for you on the lingering dread versus scary as hell sliding scale? Like, dread versus scary, where does it fall?

MEINZER: I'm going to say this - this isn't going to be keeping me up at night. Last night, I did not sleep with the lights on after watching this. It's not one of those kinds of movies. Like, "Sinister," I think, is much more in that camp as far as, like, oh, I am never going to turn off the lights again or "Nightmare On Elm Street" or whatnot. It's not like that. It is a movie that I think sets out to do something and successfully does that thing and concludes it, with some flaws here and there, as we've mentioned. And along the way, it was, at moments, very, very scary where I did - like I said, I did scream quite loudly. I did jump out of my seat. Nobody was sitting next to me, but if they were, I would have accidentally punched a few people just because I was very wildly, you know, all over the place. So, yeah, there are definitely those moments of jump scares, of fear. But is that something that's going to keep me up at night forever? No.

WELDON: OK.

CRUCCHIOLA: For me, this is a very effective scary movie. I think it does well with its dread without dragging that dread on too long. I do feel every time we are in the cell with Finney that I'm super worried about what's about to happen. I do feel that sense of, like, kind of, like, metaphorically looking over his shoulder, being like, is that door going to open? And any time you see the figure of The Grabber standing in the doorway, I'm nervous every single time. It really nails some very satisfying jump scares at points. So I think this is a great theater movie. This is a communal viewing experience, and I think you will get the most out of it being able to feed off of a crowd with it like that. I think that's where it will sing the most versus, like, maybe if you are in your house, maybe some of these elements won't, like, meld as well. But if you get everybody around you feeling that tension together and jumping around, we were shouting. We were screaming in this audience. We were startled, and it was a really fun time to watch.

WELDON: Yeah. There is something about seeing this in a theater. Even - you know, it was mostly press, but there were some normals in that theater. Everybody was reacting viscerally to this because I think this is following - it's sticking very close, at least, to the Stephen King template, which is your bad guys are cartoonishly evil. The heroes are underdogs who undergo a series of trials. So it's painting in really broad, very "Pulp"-y (ph) strokes. But it's doing that - as you guys both mentioned, it's doing it for a reason. It's doing it knowingly because it understands the assignment it has set for itself, which is to deliver an emotional payoff at the end that is satisfying. I was a little impatient with the route we were taking to get to the fireworks factory. Some of it felt a little basic, a little first draft-y (ph) in some of the dialogue. But we got there.

I got to say, just personally speaking, one of the things that made this film resonate with me as much was the production design. We talked about the masks, but the grubbiness of this film - right? - the washed-out browns and grays, how it's every day is overcast and bleak. I was 10 years old in 1978 when this film is set - a toe-headed moppet back then. I do remember a lot more color in the world. There were a lot more, you know, burnt siennas and raw umbers and avocado golds than there were in this film. But, man, the greasy hair and the high-waisted jeans and those punks in middle school - you know, this was the era of John Wayne Gacy. This is why I think they set it back then because, you know, the filmmakers were right about my age.

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah. No, there is sort of this allergy to being like, yeah, I liked it and it had this issue and I'm reconciling that. I can like "Black Phone" and have a problem with "Black Phone" and tell people I recommend "Black Phone" to you, but I have some reservations of my own. And that does not mean that I am condemning it to the waste bin. And nor am I being like, we should celebrate this thing entirely without saying anything that might be an issue with it. No, you can embrace the totality of a movie and consider it factually, and it can still, OK, guys, there's a way through to the other side.

WELDON: Absolutely, Jordan. That is the ethos of this show. If you - if I had to clarify the ethos of this show, it is finding nuance in a film that maybe doesn't emit terribly much of it. But that's intentional, right? That's completely - we're all doing our jobs here is I think what I'm trying to get to. Well, we want to know what you think about "The Black Phone." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Jordan Crucchiola, Kristen Meinzer, thanks to both of you for being here.

MEINZER: Thank you so much.

CRUCCHIOLA: Thank you.

WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and Anna Isaacs and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you might be bobbing your head to right now. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

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