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The Black Phone's Most Terrifying Moments, Ranked

"The Black Phone" stars Mason Thames as Finney, a 13-year-old boy with a foul-mouthed, tough little sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), an alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), and very few friends. At school, Finney is bullied. At home, Finney and his sister are terrorized by their dad's alcohol-induced mood swings. Meanwhile, a serial killer known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) is terrorizing the town.

"The Black Phone" was adapted by director Scott Derrickson, who wrote the screenplay based on Joe Hill's 2004 short story of the same name, with C. Robert Cargill. Derrickson's previous features include 2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," 2012's "Sinister" (which also starred Hawke), and 2016's "Doctor Strange." The supernatural aspects of Hill's story are translated well to the big screen, and the end result is a film with a lot of terrifying moments building up to a thrilling conclusion. 

The opening credits of "The Black Phone" set the tone for the horrors to come. Grainy images of children cleaning up blood are intercut with missing person flyers, and what we later learn are the Grabber's trademark black balloons, set to loud, striking music. The events take place in North Denver in 1978. Once the Grabber kidnaps Finney, the film really ratchets up the tension. Here are the most terrifying moments in "The Black Phone" ranked from least to most terrifying. Note: There are spoilers galore ahead, so hang up this piece 'til later haven't seen the film yet.

10. The kidnappings

"The Black Phone" opens with a little league game where Finney is pitching to Bruce (Tristan Pravong), a handsome boy on the opposing team who crushes the game-winning home run. He compliments Finney on his arm and rides his bike home confidently. Then, a mysterious black van pulls up behind him. The film cuts to the credits, and later we learn from a conversation between Gwen and Finney that a killer called "The Grabber" drives a black van filled with black balloons. Gwen tells the story like it's an urban legend, and Finney is unnerved. Later, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), Finney's friend, walks home alone and encounters a masked man holding black balloons and standing next to a black van. As with Bruce, we don't see Robin get taken.

By the time the Grabber goes after Finney, we're primed for terror, and we get it. After pretending to stumble and drop his bag, a man with a top hat and white makeup on his face asks Finney for help. He offers to show him a magic trick, drawing Finney in closer. Finney notices the black balloons in the back of the van. The man offers to show him the balloons before shoving him into them. The balloons swallow Finney and the Grabber sprays something in his mouth and eyes. Finney disappears into the van and the Grabber shuts the doors. Since we, as audiences, know it's the same van from Bruce's and Robin's kidnappings, it's clear in this moment that Finney is in big trouble now.

9. The Grabber's initial interactions with Finney

Once the Grabber deposits Finney in his basement, things get very creepy. The basement is a stark concrete environment with one window covered in bars and a dirty mattress on the floor. There's also a disconnected black phone on the wall.

The Grabber's initial interactions with Finney are quietly terrifying. He wears a two-piece mask. The top has horns, and the bottom is interchangeable, seemingly reflecting his mood. During their first talk, he wears a bottom half with no mouth. The Grabber talks to Finney as if everything will be okay. He shows Finney where Finney managed to cut his arm and says he forgives him. Even more creepy is when he twirls Finney's hair and says, "You don't have to be scared because nothing bad is going to happen here." 

The Grabber returns later with a smiling bottom mask and says he will take Finney home after he takes care of a situation upstairs. As he stands in the doorway, his tortured rictus of a mask exudes menace, though his voice is calm as he says, "I will never make you do anything you won't like," hesitating between "won't" and "like." That hesitation contains a multitude of implications, none of which are pleasant. Finney later naps, and when he wakes up, the Grabber is staring at him. He "just wants to look at" Finney, he says. His menacing behavior here makes for a very chilling moment in the movie indeed.

8. Gwen's psychic dreams

At one point, we see what appears to be home movies of Bruce with his parents. One is of him as a toddler learning to hit a ball with an oversized plastic bat. As the movies progress, Bruce ages and then we see him abducted by the Grabber. Suddenly, Finney is behind a window screaming for help. It's not a home movie after all — it's one of Gwen's psychic dreams.

Gwen is interrogated by Detectives Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Miller (Troy Rudeseal) because she knows details about the kidnappings that have not been released to the public. No one really believes she saw them in her dreams — though those visions play a large part in the plot, as they are interwoven throughout the narrative (and appear to be part of the opening credits as well).

As bad as that dream is, the one she has of Vance (Brady Hepner), another victim of the Grabber, is even more terrifying because it doesn't start with the home video-style look of her other dreams. Instead, it seems like a flashback as we see Vance playing pinball and getting into a vicious fight with kids who bump his machine, leading to his arrest. Suddenly, Gwen and Finney are both there and the look of the footage switches between flashback and dream. Gwen sees Vance carve a number into the arm of the kid who ruined his pinball game. She wakes up and is rattled, as are we.

7. Finney finally answers the phone

When the Grabber first talks to Finney after the kidnapping, he hears a phone ring and thinks it's upstairs. Finney doesn't hear anything. He has already been told the phone in the basement doesn't work, so he doesn't think about it. While Finney is alone, though, the black phone rings. Finney answers but no one is there. He sleeps, and when he wakes up, his eyesight is blurry and it looks like the phone is breathing. The Grabber is there watching him, then leaves. This is all unsettling for both Finney and the audience.

What happens next is truly terrifying, though. The black phone rings again, and this time, Finney answers. There is static and then a loud, scary voice booms out. Finney hangs up in fear. It rings again, and Finney picks it up and immediately hangs up again. The tension is thick. Then the next time, someone talks. Finney recognizes the voice but can't place it. It turns out to be Bruce, the first boy we saw kidnapped — only Bruce doesn't know his own name because he's forgotten it. He tells Finney the Grabber can hear the phone, but since the Grabber doesn't believe it works, he ignores it. Bruce then gives Finney advice, and what was a terrifying moment is relaxed as Finney begins to accept the supernatural help. But the shivers from the initial answering still linger for quite a while after this scene.

6. The Grabber's game

The Grabber starts off more quietly menacing than overtly threatening — even though we know that the other boys are missing and presumed dead and that some are calling from beyond the grave via the black phone. So when he brings Finney food but doesn't close the door all the way, it seems like Finney conceivably could easily escape.

At first, when the Grabber, wearing the smiling mask, offers the food and soda, Finney declines. The Grabber says Finney is already trapped, so there's no reason to drug him. It's part of making Finney feel "safe." But when Finney sees the door ajar, he decides to go check it. Right then, the black phone rings. The boy who calls is Billy (Jacob Moran), who tells Finney that the open door is a trap and that he shouldn't go up the stairs. Billy tells Finney that if he goes up, the Grabber will beat him with a belt, and it will be extremely painful. Finney starts to go up anyway. We then cut to the shirtless Grabber sitting in a chair, legs open, wearing a mask with a frown on it and with a large belt in hand. He is waiting by the entrance to the basement, and he looks especially frightening. As soon as Finney pokes his head out, he is doomed. Fortunately, Finney doesn't go all the way up. However, that moment where it looks as if he will (and we see what's waiting for him) is excruciatingly terrifying.

5. Finney's escape attempt

Finney talks to another Grabber victim, Griffin (Banks Repeta), on the black phone. The Grabber is becoming angry because he can't win his games if Finney doesn't play. Griffin tells Finney to hurry because the Grabber hasn't been sleeping much. The Grabber has once again left the basement door unlocked, so now is Finney's chance to escape.

The Grabber uses Griffin's bike lock on the front door of his house. Griffin carved the combination in the wall but doesn't remember the correct sequence, so Finney will have to try several. In a nerve-rattling sequence, Finney manages to sneak past the sleeping Grabber and get the lock open. However, the unlocking sound causes the Grabber's dog to bark, awakening the Grabber. Finney takes off running, but the Grabber chases him down in the black van. The neighbors turn on their porch lights because of the noise, but the Grabber tackles Finney and holds a knife to his throat, saying he will gut him and strangle him with his own entrails if he makes a noise. All the porch lights go off one by one as a terrified Finney stays quiet. The Grabber ends the tension by knocking Finney out. As much as audiences may want Finney to cry for help, the terrifying threat from the Grabber looms large, and devastatingly, Finney's shot at escape has failed.

4. The dead boys in the basement

When Finney first talks to the Grabber's previous victims, he only hears them. Later, though, they start appearing in the room, though Finney cannot see them at first. First is Billy, whose cheeks are sliced and bleeding. Finney doesn't see him, even though Billy is standing right next to him. Toward the end, there's Vance, who is sitting on the other side of the mattress and who Finney can see. Vance is angry and yells a lot. In fact, Vance yells so loudly that the whole room shakes. Vance is suddenly sucked back into the darkness and the empty pop bottles that have been piling up from the Grabber's poor diet for Finney break.

The most terrifying of these specters is Griffin, who Finney can also see. We learn early in the film that Finney is in a science club and likes rockets. He has a toy NASA rocket that's also a flashlight. He used it to try to fend off the Grabber in the kidnapping, and it comes in handy again when he hears dripping. Finney traces a crack in the wall, perhaps thinking the dripping is from a pipe behind it. Suddenly, he sees a dead boy, Griffin, suspended mid-air in a backbend, blood dripping from his body onto the floor. Griffin points at an unnatural angle to the black phone and disappears. It's a quick, scary moment that gets the heart pumping hard, even though Griffin is just there to help.

3. Gwen gets stopped by the boys

Whenever Gwen has a dream related to any of the kidnappings, she goes out on her bike trying to find the places from her dreams in hopes of also finding Finney. She gets frustrated when she appears to have little luck in the pursuit.  

However, after the violent dream of Vance getting arrested, Gwen rides out to find the house with the address of the number she saw him carve. It's raining hard, and she's not looking forward, but side to side. Suddenly, lightning strikes and all five missing boys are there standing, bloodied, in her path, blocking the way. She falls off her bike, and they disappear. It's a very brief jump scare, but it's terrifying. As with some of the other horrifying appearances of the boys, though, it's based on them trying to help as they stop her right in front of the correct house. Still, the sight of them lined up, dead and leering at her, is spine chilling.

2. The climactic battle

The climactic battle begins with a moment of hope that's quickly taken away. The Grabber is out buying supplies to bury Finney. Meanwhile, the Grabber's ne'er-do-well brother, Max (James Ransone), has been staying with the Grabber (unwittingly, of course) trying to help solve the kidnappings because he has no job and nothing better to do. Despite his state of inebriation, Max finally realizes Finney is in the basement. When he opens the door and sees Finney, though, the door is open just enough that we can see Max but not behind him or next to him. 

Finney immediately wants to run, but Max is hyped up and asks if Finney wants to know how he (Max) found him. Finney wants to run because he knows as well as the audience does that his time is running out. Sure enough, though, the door swings open wider and we see the Grabber, with only the top part of his mask on, coming down the stairs behind Max with an ax. He kills Max with a blow to the head and blood splatters everywhere.

The rest of the battle is a series of more teeth-gnashing moments as the Grabber tells Finney he is going to make Finney's death really hurt — that he normally uses a knife but he wants Finney's death to be slow. Meanwhile, Gwen has summoned the police to search a house that turns out to be the wrong one, while Finney is simultaneously fighting for his life against the Grabber, thus ratcheting up the tension and scare factor even more.

1. Finney and Gwen's abuse

Some of the very most terrifying moments in "The Black Phone" actually do not involve the Grabber — rather, they involve most of the interactions Gwen and Finney have with their alcoholic father, Terrence. Early in the film, we see the tense dynamic in the family. Finney is sitting at the table with Terrence, who has dirt under his nails and works at a local nuclear facility. He's hungover and doesn't want the kids making noise. He's sarcastic with them, and they walk on eggshells around him.

One night, Finney stays up late to watch the 1959 horror film "The Tingler." He stifles his fear of a bloody scene in the movie so he won't scream and wake up his dad. Finney falls asleep in front of the TV, and when he wakes up the next day, he hears Gwen crying and Terrence yelling. He walks into the kitchen where Terrence is beating Gwen with a belt. It turns out their deceased mother also had psychic dreams, and Terrence is livid that Gwen may have them, too. Terrence beats Gwen until she says her dreams are not real. It's terrifying and heartbreaking and incredibly difficult to watch. A later scene where he stands outside her slightly ajar door is equally tense because she doesn't know if he'll come in and punish her for still being awake or walk away. Thankfully, that time, he merely chastises her for staying up late to play and tells her to go to sleep. However, these interactions prove that it's not just the Grabber who can strike real fear into audiences of "The Black Phone."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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