Nostalgia is at an all-time high. With inflation over 9% and a brewing cold war, it easily could be the early1980s again. It has also been a banner couple of months for Ethan Hawke and his daughter Maya who plays Robin in Stranger Things. The 80s brought us a bevy of genre movies where children were the heroes. Like Stranger Things, they fought impossible odds to defeat a Big Bad that was hell-bent on world domination. The Goonies, The Gate, and even Adventures in Babysitting filled that wish-fulfillment itch. There is nothing we like better than underdogs, and children are the easiest innocents to root for. It is from this place that Joe Hill’s short story The Black Phone, which was adapted for the screen by him, C. Robert Cargill, and director Scott Derrickson grew.
Combined with a handful of incredible performances from Ethan Hawke, who chillingly plays a twisted killer, and Mason Thames as Finney, the last of the Grabber’s victims, The Black Phone is poised to be the horror hit of the summer. Here’s everything you need to know about the satisfying ending, if Finney dies, and all the symbolism throughout The Black Phone.
In The Black Phone, a serial killer dubbed the Grabber has taken five boys, and they are still missing. Through a series of news articles, flyers, and flashbacks, we learn who they were and see how some of them were taken. When a few were snatched, the kidnapper left behind black balloons. Finney’s sister Gwen knows this even though the information was never released to the public because she sees things in her dreams. Much like Hill’s father, Stephen King, who gave the “Shining” to many of his characters, Hill also dabbles in supernatural abilities for his characters. In NOS4A2, his protagonist is touched with the ability to find anything; in this film, Finney and Gwen can communicate with the dead.
Several times in The Black Phone, their father talks about their mother, who also had this ability and committed suicide as a result. He is now a drunk mess who beats his children in grief and rage. He is so terrified of losing them to the same madness that took his wife that he has convinced himself abusing them and living in a drunken stupor is superior to listening to them. This is a theme that is paralleled in the Grabber’s life.
Finney is a smart, kind boy who is frequently bullied. He becomes the sixth victim of the Grabber and the second half of the film shows his fight for survival. Shortly after being taken and stashed in a soundproof basement, he begins to get calls on a black rotary phone. The Grabber insists the phone hasn’t worked since he was a kid, but Finney hears it ring and has conversations with kids he learns are the previous victims. All five boys share their advice and insight in the hopes that Finney might do what they couldn’t. Meanwhile, Gwen has dreams about the Grabber, the missing boys, and the house they have been buried in that help lead the police to one of the two homes the Grabber owns.
The ending of The Black Phone explained
The Grabber’s brother Max has been living with his brother and researching the missing children. When Max finds Finney in the basement, we think he might be saved, but Max was always too in love with his own voice to pay attention to anything around him, and he got his head cleaved in half while regaling Finney with his brilliance. At this point, it was up to Finney to save himself by using all the knowledge from the other boys. While the police were across the street at the other house owned by the Grabber, Finney fought him off with the phone. The Grabber fell into the hole Finney dug earlier and broke his ankle. Next, Finney strangled the Grabber with the phone cord and used the lock combination to get out of the house, where he saw his sister and the police.
Each of the boys played a part in Finney’s escape. While not all of them necessarily cared about his safety, they all wanted revenge on the man who robbed them of their lives. They were angry and hoped to get even using Finney. Each of the boys had tried something different to escape, but none were successful. None of the other boys could hear the phone ring either and thus could not get the shared information the others provided. The five previous boys, including Finney’s friend Robin, were all stabbed to death after being beaten. The Grabber tells Finney this after he kills Max. He tells Finney he would normally kill him with a knife, but after the mess he made, he was making an exception and using an ax.
Griffin helped with the lock combination, which kept the door secure. He also kept Finney safe by explaining the “Naughty Boy” game. Bruce, who was the first to call, told him about digging a hole and bolstered his confidence by telling him his arm was mint. The Paper Boy gave him the wire and grate, which he used to break the Grabber’s leg later, and Vince gave him the freezer and meat, which he used to distract Sampson. His friend Robin comes to him last after another failed escape attempt. At this point, Finney has been broken down by a near escape and several failed attempts. Robin helps him understand this is his time to be brave. He makes him see that he has always been fearless. He just didn’t know it.
In a gorgeous and haunting scene where the two boys mirror each other’s movements, Robin teaches Finney how to fight. He tells him to use the dirt from the hole to fill the phone receiver making it as heavy as possible and instructs him on throwing a punch with it. Robin tells him he was always a fighter. He said he always got back up and wasn’t afraid to take a punch, even if he didn’t want to throw one. Robin tells him he needs him to fight for all of them now.
As Finney strangled the Grabber to death, the five dead boys called him and taunted the Grabber from beyond the grave. Finally, they had their revenge on the man who tortured and killed them for sport. By working together and pooling their collective knowledge, strength, and courage, Finney was able to escape. The other boys were long dead, and there was no way to rescue them, but by Finney killing the Grabber and escaping, he was able to live for them all. When Gwen led the police to the house where they were buried, they could get some peace. In the final moments of The Black Phone, Finney is seen embracing his newfound confidence, and there is even the possibility that his father will try to clean up.
The dualities of Finney and the Grabber
The Grabber and Finney share many things in common. They both have supernatural abilities and can speak to the dead. The Grabber admits to hearing the phone as a child but says it hasn’t worked in decades. Later in the film, he also hears the phone ring, and his victims rage at him. He probably had the ability as a child and either had it beaten out of him or repressed it rather than be haunted by the ghosts of the boys he has killed. Finney, Gwen, and the Grabber seem to have more than just abuse in common. The Grabber probably heard things as a child and was punished for being different. Now, as an adult, he acts out the abuse he suffered as a child.
For him, it is a way to capture some of the control he longed for. The difference between Finney and The Grabber, though, is that Finney is a pacifist. He believes in avoiding violence and counsels his sister on compassion and restraint. In the end, he showed none for the Grabber, though, because he was channeling all the anger from his fellow captors, and he needed to fight for his life. As he gets older, hopefully, he will not lose his ability to speak with and for the dead and show kindness even when it’s not deserved.
The symbology of the masks, the phone, and balloons in The Black Phone
The Grabber wears a set of masks throughout the movie because he is the monster his mask projects. Finney is able to get the upper hand when he knocks the Grabber’s mask off, and he flips out. For this evil man, his mask is his protection. It is what allows him to kill these boys without conscience. It is a literal shield from the horrors of his past. Some of those he feels guilt for, like the killing of the boys, but some might also be sins of his father. When he is so insistent that Finney put the phone down right after taking him, he says it hasn’t worked since he was a kid. The boys make it clear the Grabber has been able to hear them all along. It is possible that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and the Grabber’s father could have killed people who called from beyond the grave too.
Many of his masks have horns because he is evil. He has warped into this twisted version of a father who revels in punishment instead of love and finds pleasure in others’ pain. Black is often associated with death and evil. The phone and the balloons are black because they represent death. Balloons are usually decorations for kids’ parties, but in this case, they are implements of the boy’s abduction. It is an especially cruel element to introduce. The Grabber keeps the phone even though it could be and does become a weapon because although he knows the dead haunt him from it, his guilt won’t let him get rid of it.
Joe Hill, who wrote the short story, and Scott Derrickson, who directed the movie, are making big statements about child abuse and the stain it can leave on children. For some, it makes them timid and lonely, while others who were already damaged become killers. It is not lost on me that both Finney’s father and the Grabber used a belt to mete out punishment. Yet, as bleak as The Black Phone is, it is about finding light in the darkness, finding courage when you are scared, and gaining strength in numbers. You can stream The Black Phone on Apple TV right now for purchase or rent, and it is still in theaters. It will be available streaming on Amazon and other VOD sites tomorrow.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.