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The Black Phone Moments That Really Upset Fans The Most

Scott Derrickson's "The Black Phone" is a dark thriller that may not be a true-blue horror film, but it's most certainly not for the faint of heart. The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) isn't just a child kidnapper or a murderer; he's a tormenter. His compulsion is to completely and horrifically depress a child by dangling the carrot of hope in their face before violently snatching it away. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is the Grabber's latest victim in a string of kidnappings and sudden disappearances, who wakes up terrified and alone in a locked basement room. 

Finney's spirit is buoyed up by the boys who went before him and all met a grisly demise. They cross the threshold of the spiritual and physical worlds by using a mysterious black phone in Finney's prison to communicate with him. The phone isn't supposed to work, and perhaps it doesn't — at least not in a real-world sense. But it's all Finney has to help him keep his head on his shoulders. 

The stakes are high, and ultimately "The Black Phone" doesn't disappoint. It's a capable thriller dripping with emotional heft and suspense. However, some viewers still found faults within the narrative or found themselves impacted by some of the film's darker sequences. Let's dive into elements of the film that caused fans to be a tad critical.

Warning: spoilers for "The Black Phone" below.

Finney and Gwen's father is abusive

While there's some light-hearted humor in this film, most of the story deals with heavy and dark themes. Finney and his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), lost their mother some time ago. Their mother had psychic abilities, which affected her experience of reality so much that she took her own life. The siblings' father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), has become bitter and depressed in the aftermath of his wife's death, and he's turned to alcohol to deal with it. Terrence once had a much different temperament within the family, but is now cold, distant, and volatile with his children. Because of this, Finney and Gwen have formed an unshakeable bond.

While Terrence professes his love for his children and even seeks forgiveness from them later in the film, he still commits some rather heinous deeds that can never be erased. The big one is the moment where he beats Gwen with a belt for refusing to deny her clairvoyant abilities, something she shares with her mother. The scene is raw and McGraw's performance portrays the full weight of her pain, sorrow, and anger towards her father. 

Understandably, this moment was jarring and upsetting for some viewers. One redditor mentioned how it was "the most horrifying scene" in the entire movie. The chaos of the scene is accentuated by Davies' intense and realistic portrayal of a man whose grief and refusal to deal with his emotions have turned him into an abuser. Redditor u/blueeyesredlipstick declared the moment was "way scarier than everything with the Grabber" because it was "so unsettlingly real."

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Trailer spoilers

There once was a world where movie-goers would sit down in a cool, dark theater and watch previews for upcoming films for the first time. Now, we're inundated with movie trailers that we can rewatch with the press of a button and a never-ending online discussion dissecting these previews. As the film industry has grown, so has the need to create bigger and flashier trailers. Unfortunately, one of the most prominent complaints about modern movies is that the trailer reveals too much before the movie even comes out.

Sadly, some viewers feel the same way about "The Black Phone." Much of its mystery was revealed within its promotional materials, and some viewers were hopeful that an additional twist or break in the story would occur that they weren't expecting. Redditor u/ghostfaceinspace remarked, "the trailer spoiled a lot. They could've done without the grabber chasing him at night, and the learning to fight scene. I figured out what was going to happen because that 2nd scene didn't happen yet when the first one did." 

This redditor is not wrong. It's easy to glean many details of the film's narrative simply by viewing the trailer. Going in "blind" isn't as easy as it seems either, given that most people need to see a basic preview to even be sold on the idea of watching the movie. It's a tricky tight rope walk these days and for some viewers, one that "The Black Phone" failed to achieve.

The Grabber mystery

Even though he is the face of the film and its marketing, the Grabber is the most enigmatic character in "The Black Phone." Not much is revealed concerning the Grabber's backstory. However, some things can be gleaned from his interactions with Finney. He's a manipulator. The Grabber tells Finney that he won't hurt him because he wants to give his victims a false sense of security. That way, they'll try to escape and so, give him the excuse to punish them in a game he calls "Naughty Boy." There's no denying that this man has suffered some serious trauma. Perhaps he was once deemed the "naughty boy," and punished for it.

At the end of the day, however, these notions are still speculation. We don't actually know anything about the Grabber's history. While the film endeavors to maintain an aura of mystery allowing viewers to use their imaginations, some fans felt annoyed by the lack of exposition. 

Redditor u/GoldenShark stated that the film should have focused less on the side stories, like Gwen's attempt to save her brother, and more on the Grabber, as this particular viewer wanted to know "did the different masks mean different personalities?"

All in all, the Grabber doesn't have a lot of screen time, which leaves him shrouded in mystery. Where does he go during the day? What does he really do for a living? Why does he cover his face? There's a careful balance filmmakers must embrace between leaving mysteries to the imagination and providing useful history.

What was the point of Max?

For all the questions that remain surrounding the Grabber, there is one thing we do know: He isn't exactly a loner. The Grabber has a brother named Max (James Ransone). Max isn't quite the evil schemer that his brother is. In fact, he's nothing like him. He's a bit of a drug addict, and he is fixated on solving the mystery of the Grabber. 

The Grabber allows Max to stay with him, as his hapless younger brother is currently between jobs and needs a place to stay. Of course, we all know how things end for Max — not good. He discovers his brother's dark secret and is then summarily murdered with an axe to the skull. The Grabber then blames Finney for "forcing" him to murder his own brother.

Some viewers have taken umbrage with the inclusion of Max as a superfluous element to the story. He doesn't do anything to further the overall narrative. Redditor u/shaneo632 stated, "Hawke's brother also felt like a character who didn't even need to be in this. I like James Ransone as much as the next guy but his character was nothing." 

Redditor SoulCruizer wondered how it was possible for Max not to suspect anything was amiss with his brother: "Did the grabber lock his brother in his room at night or something cause couldn't he bump into his brother passed out in a chair with a mask and belt?" For these viewers, Max represents one of several unanswered questions of "Black Phone" and perhaps one of the most frustrating.

The rope and window plot

Finney refuses to take his fate lying down. He immediately begins running through possible escape options in his mind, although the empty cement basement doesn't leave many possibilities for breaking out. But that's what the black phone is for. The Grabber's past victims connect with Finney to help him based on their own attempts to make it out of the basement.

One of the ideas is to begin tunneling a way out through the dirt underneath a loose tile. While Finney doesn't actually tunnel his way out, that hole does become extremely handy in the climactic third act. Another idea is to use a rope to hook around the window bars and climb out that way. In order to direct a rope around the bars near the window that are just out of reach, Finney uses a rolled-up carpet tube to feed the rope.

Redditor u/drflanigan thinks the entire idea is preposterous, particularly since the rope is shown to be CGI-animated, as it comes out of the rug and loops around the bar of the window. "If you have to use a CGI rope in order to perform an action, maybe that action isn't realistic?" they ask. This is actually true, there was CGI work done in this scene (via Creative Cow). They also ask how the carpet would help get the limber rope up. "If it's floppy enough to instantly bend around the bars, it's not rigid enough to be pushed up a hollow carpet tube." 

The eerie opening credits

Some of the most iconic horror films have even more iconic opening credits. Just look at John Carpenter's "Halloween." An ominous jack-o-lantern comes into view as the hair-raising piano theme chimes in is an introduction to remember. "The Black Phone" may not be a straight horror film, but it does have its own style that makes it a memorable stand-out from the pack.

The intro of the movie gives off the vibe of an eerie cold case documentary mixed with elements of the home-made snuff films that may make some viewers wonder if it's a true story. The musical accompaniment is edgy and hair-raising, much like the famed "Halloween" theme. To put it succinctly, Redditor u/baronspeerzy asserts "been a while since I've felt that assaulted by opening credits."

In a sit-down with the director, IndieWire further describes the sensation the opening credits leave viewers with: "The pervasive sense of real-world trauma in an entertaining package is present from the moment 'The Black Phone' opens, thanks to a set of gritty opening credits (shot on Super 8) that focus on youngsters in various states of unease, a 'creeping in of the bloody violence of childhood' that was conceived of and shot by Derrickson's wife, fellow filmmaker Maggie Levin." 

Derrickson notes how the footage of the opening credits captures the feeling of his childhood, which was marked by kids in his neighborhood getting into fights: "My own childhood memory is marked mostly by feelings of fear. That's what I mostly remember." So, it's not surprising that a number of viewers were disturbed by this evocative opening.

A little light on the villain

While many were haunted by the imagery of Ethan Hawke in his Grabber attire — complete with a sinister stylized mask — the real star of the movie is Finney. However, the film's marketing, including its poster, showcases the Grabber first and foremost. So, you can't blame the audience for buying a ticket with the hopes of seeing this headlining villain of the entire affair.

This did lead to some viewers being upset by the Grabber's presence, or lack thereof, throughout the film. When the Grabber is on screen, there is no doubt that he commands the audience's attention. He's a haunting fixture throughout every frame in each of his sequences. But some viewers felt there wasn't enough of the Grabber and his antics on screen. Redditor u/TatteredTongues claims that Ethan Hawke was "so criminally underused." 

Some might argue, however, that saturating the film with appearances from the Grabber would cause him to lose his captivating hold over the audience. After all, there can be too much of a good thing.

Was Gwen's story unnecessary?

Finney's story is tale of adversity and the triumph of the human spirit. While he's the central figure to "The Black Phone," there are multiple facets of this story that offer different perspectives to the events playing out on screen.

One such perspective is that of Finney's sister Gwen, who's conducting her own search for her brother. In some ways, Gwen helps us understand what's at stake for Finney, which may have been less clear if the story was isolated to his imprisonment. She proves to be the boy's heart and soul and he is the same for her. Seeing the kidnapping from Gwen's perspective and her desperate attempts to harness her psychic ability to save her brother only bolster the tension at play.

Still, multiple viewers felt that Gwen's storyline could've been time better spent exploring the Grabber, Finney, and the ghosts of the villain's victims. Redditor u/Broad-Astronaut-504 stated, "I do feel like the sister's visions were almost pointless? ... Yes, she sped up the investigation, but I don't feel like she contributed a whole lot, more time could've been spent on the 'naughty boy' game." 

Of course, the preference here is pretty subjective. Does Gwen's story heighten the overall narrative? Well, she does lead the police to the bodies of the previous victims, which provides a modicum of closure for the families, and she is the one to bring the police to one of the Grabber's houses. Ultimately, her usefulness in this film is for you to decide.

The hole in the wall

Exactly how does one find their way out of a concrete room with a locked door and a barred window? There really are not a lot of options when you think about it. The victim is going to have to get creative. But what's stronger than the power of the mind? The power of multiple minds. 

At one point, Finney gets a call from a tough guy named Vance (Brady Hepner), who counsels him on a possible way out. Vance tells him that on the other side of the bathroom wall is a storage room with an upright freezer against the wall. If Finney can chip away at the wall, he can reach the back panel of the freezer in the storage room and find a way out from there. Of course, the freezer proves to be a problematic obstacle.

Some viewers wonder how Finney chips through several inches of concrete with just a porcelain toilet lid. Redditor u/Xerenopd critiqued the logistics, simply noting they were "surprised how he broke through a 6inch concrete wall." Redditor u/bugxbuster replied by saying that while it bothered them that the hole was such a perfect rectangle made with a toilet tank lid, what upset them more was that Finney didn't use his energy to make a bigger hole to then climb over the freezer.

Not so scary

At first blush, "The Black Phone" appears to be a horror film based on its creepy Grabber-focused marketing. And if you believe Peacock or IMDb, you might be expecting a horror. However, aside from a few jumpy moments, this film truly rests squarely in the thriller category, some viewers who were ready to gear up for a horror flick found themselves a tad disappointed at the end result. 

Despite the man's chilling demeanor and arguably disturbing mask, Redditor u/bookliar didn't even find the Grabber terrifying until the very end of the film, and they felt like "the movie didn't rely on genuine fear for me enough." In the comments, other Redditors agreed that "The Black Phone" doesn't quite have the proper scare factor, particularly with its villain. But who knows, maybe there are some of us out there who will be haunted by that horrific mask in our dreams. Be wary of black balloons and black vans.

The Grabber isn't very observant

As a mastermind of countless crimes involving the kidnapping and deaths of multiple children, you'd think the Grabber has everything down to a science by now. And maybe he does. Arguably, it's those consistencies that become his downfall, since they allow the spirits of his deceased victims to help Finney predict the Grabber's movements.

However, Finney makes plenty of attempts to escape and the Grabber doesn't seem to notice. Or maybe it's that he doesn't care. Perhaps he knows that his prison is impenetrable and he takes satisfaction knowing that his victims are trying but failing.

One Redditor noted that the Grabber just seems completely oblivious to Finney's escape attempts. He doesn't notice the missing window grate. It's also mentioned that Vance attempted the escape through the wall at one point. How else would the kid know what's on the other side? So, it seems like a misstep for the Grabber to not check on that considering Finney has been a prisoner for some time.

Because this film leaves so many blank spaces for viewers to fill in with their own imaginations, it's possible this was simply all by design. Maybe the Grabber wants to catch Finney in the act in order to punish him. He's confident he'd win the day regardless, so he waits for Finney to make an escape in order to begin a new game of Naughty Boy. Plot hole or subtle character-building choice? You decide.