Scott Derrickson left a lucrative gig directing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to make The Black Phone, moving from popular but superficial to niche but genuine treatment of good resisting evil. A devout Christian, Derrickson delivers the moral conflict that Marvel movies promise with the depth and spirituality they cannot deliver.
The Black Phone is a coming-of-age horror film, a dark yet Christian version of the Pinnochio story. In that story, as Jordan Peterson’s expounded,1 a father symbolizes dead tradition that the boy must adapt to the present through paying attention. The boy journeys into the belly of the whale to save this dead tradition and thus becomes a real man.
As Jonathan Pageau recently noted2, the Christian story diverges from this narrative because there are two father figures: Adam and God the Father. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross saves his earthly father, Adam, and covers over his sins. Christ the victim descends into Hades and becomes Christ the victor, freeing all his human forefathers. He accomplishes this both through re-actualizing the dead letter (such as explaining the true meaning of the law) and also revealing the true principle or Logos that underlies the rules. Without that Logos, without pointing toward the highest good, his heavenly Father, tyranny and manipulation ensue.
The Black Phone introduces three evil, earthly father figures. The first is Finney and Gwen’s biological father. Driven by alcoholism and grief, he’s fearful and abusive. His wife had supernatural visions that led to her suicide, and he belts his daughter when she mentions supernatural visions of her own, a literal “beating the devil out of you.” The mother is a cautionary example: she communed with the supernatural, but she did so without God the Father as her source of goodness. Gwen doesn’t condemn her mother, but she doesn’t repeat her mistakes. Rather, she covers her mother’s sins.
When she wants to have a vision or premonition to save her brother, she has a ritual of laying out a book of Psalms and Proverbs, a picture of Mary, and rosary beads. Her prayers are at times humorously irreverent, but she calls upon Jesus for guidance, not vague supernatural forces like her mother did. Gwen must mature from unpredictable dreams to vivid visions, must learn to pray, to convince her threatening father and the skeptical police to follow her to find Finney.
Finney is abducted by the second father figure, The Grabber. The Grabber (played by Ethan Hawke) is a serial killer, whose threats and changing masks mimic his father’s violence and mood swings. Both punish with a belt. Finney’s imprisoned in a concrete basement with a bed and a black phone. The Grabber tells Finney that he once was in the basement too, but the phone never worked for him. Sometimes it rings, but he attributes it to static electricity. Yet, when Finney tests the phone for himself, The Grabber yells, “Hang up the phone!”
He fears and envies Finney because the phone turns out to allow communing with the prior victims. His inability to use it and mechanical explanation for its ringing hints at a spiritual blindness. Unlike Gwen, Finney’s supernatural encounters come through the black phone. The screenwriter C. Robert Cargill said in an interview, “Gwen has essentially half of her mother’s powers and Finney has the other half.”3 Thus, Gwen provides a Christian metaphysical complement to Finney’s mystical, ghastly phone.
Initially, the phone rings, but there’s only static. As Finney stays longer, he learns to speak with the victims, and the audience even sees the boys. Although Finney never prays to Jesus, these boys form a martyred communion of saints. They appear with their fatal wounds still visible, much like St. Bartholomew holding his own flayed skin in Christian art. They died defying The Grabber.
Now, they all come back to help Finney resist. They give him advice on where to find rope to pull down a metal grate or make a tripwire. His eventual defeat of The Grabber relies on interpolating the advice of each “saint”; they protect Finney from traps and guide him on the narrow path. They model God the Father.
The Grabber is the opposite. Twisted by evil, he deceives Finney and perhaps himself as well. He’s constantly changing masks and expressions. On the top is what Derrickson called a “Devil mask” and the bottom is no expression, nothing at all, or a Greek tragedy smile or frown. The combination changes scene to scene based on The Grabber’s objective – consoling, scolding, threatening – and his personality appears to change with the mask. When Finney accuses The Grabber of killing all those boys, he replies, “No, that was someone else.”
While the backstory of The Grabber is vague, his disconnect from any higher good is apparent. Cut off from the supernatural black phone, he’s devoted himself to violence and destruction and the ritual, sacrificial slaughter of these boys. He forces them to play “Naughty Boy,” and only when they “break the rules” is their death required. He’s gone from abused to abuser.
The Grabber’s brother Max lives upstairs and represents a third father figure. Ironically, he’s hunting The Grabber and the missing children who are in his own basement. Whereas The Grabber is violent and plotting, the brother is blinded by pleasure. He’s snorting so much cocaine that he cannot see what’s going on in the basement. The war of good and evil, virtue and the passions, the supernatural versus materialism, is all lost on him, so consuming is his gluttony.
Faced with these failed father figures, taken down into the earth, Finney must face his fears and defeat the Grabber. In the climactic scene, Finney springs the trap prepared with the help of his saints, and all the boys’ prophecies are inverted; “Today’s the day!” and “You’re almost out of time” turn out to predict doom for The Grabber, not for Finney. The victim becomes the victor.
The decisive moment in the fight comes when Finney unmasks The Grabber, the first time The Grabber is without a mask in the movie. Immediately, The Grabber yelps and tries to hide his face. In a sort of last judgment, The Grabber finally hears the phone – understands the true nature of reality – only when he’s dying at Finney’s hand.
The Grabber’s ashamed face covering is another Christian image contra horror tropes. Other masked villains, like Michael Myers, appear lifeless and inhuman, but The Grabber’s humanity – from sitting shirtless to close-ups of teary eyes – is constantly reasserted. He’s not abstract evil but a human who’s chosen evil.
St. John of Damascus taught that Christians bear both God’s image and likeness. Our image refers to our intellect and free-will, but likeness refers to our striving for virtue4. When we act in accordance with God’s commandments, in synergy with his grace, we become God’s agents in the world, we look more like God. A demonic mask like The Grabber’s is a complete denial of our heavenly nature, a literal defacing of our likeness. When The Grabber is unmasked, the guilt and shame is unbearable for him. As Simone Weil noted, imaginary evil is often romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy and barren. Unlike other popular villains, whether Milton’s Satan or Nolan’s Joker, The Grabber is not thrilling but realistic.
Thus, Finney’s defeat is not only a symbolic defeat of evil or dead tradition but also a defeat of his own passions. The Grabber stands for rejection of God and embrace of the devil, submission to passions. Defeating him stands for victory over the passions deep within (a victory that occurs literally in the basement of this house), that allows the victor to ascend to truer, deeper pleasures of love, responsibility, and maturity. He goes from darkness to light, from childhood to adulthood, from The Grabber to his sister. Gwen’s triumph coincides with Finney’s: she arrives with aid, guided by her visions, just as Finney walks out of his prison.
When Finney’s father comes to the scene, he rushes over to Finney. Symbolically, Finney has vanquished evil and covered the sins of his earthly father by aligning with the heavenly father. His communion of the saints and his sister’s divine visions allowed for them to reunite as adults and, in a sense, faithful Christians. They avoided the traps of despair, nihilism, and hedonism. When the father gets close to Finney instead of saying, “You’re okay!” he visually recreates the Anastasis icon. He gets down on one knee, takes Finney’s hand, and simply says, “Thank you.”