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The Black Phone, the new horror movie starring Ethan Hawke, opens in theaters on Friday. Set in the 1970s, The Black Phone follows a young boy named Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) after he’s abducted by a notorious child-killer known as The Grabber (Hawke). Locked in The Grabber’s basement and seemingly doomed, Finney’s only chance comes in the form of a black, seemingly unplugged rotary phone on the wall, and The Grabber’s past victims are on the other line.
Whether or not you have the stomach to answer the film’s call is up to you. (The reviews have been good, with special praise going to Hawke for his chilling villain performance.) However, The Black Phone is hardly the first horror movie to dial-up phone-related scares. There are tons of movies where a spooky phone call — supernatural or otherwise — results in terror. So SYFY WIRE flipped through our Rolodex and identified five horror movies involving phones.
1. Black Christmas (1974)
The most famous scary story about a phone call is an old urban legend about a killer calling from inside the house. That spooky tale has been the inspiration for many, many horror movies (including the first three on this list), but 1974’s Black Christmas, considered by many to be the first true slasher movie, was also one of the earliest movies to feature this phone-related horror.
Set in a sorority house during a Christmas party, Black Christmas quickly lets viewers know that there is somebody inside the house leaving increasingly disturbing and threatening prank phone calls for the coeds inside. Throughout the film — which is a cult classic despite being a grimy, upsetting watch (or perhaps that’s why it’s a cult classic) — we see the killer but never in any serious detail. His murders are real, but when he’s doing the killings, he’s little more than the physical manifestation of that voice on the phone. It’s an unsettling bit of lingering mystery.
2. When a Stranger Calls (1979)
When a Stranger Calls also evokes the old urban legend, as the opening sequence of this psychological horror film is essentially a straightforward — and supremely scary — retelling of the classic scary story. Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is a babysitter who gets a strange call asking her if she has “checked on the children.” The tension and the suspense ratchet up higher and higher over the course of the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, eventually culminating in the reveal that the call has been coming from inside the house and that the children are already long dead.
That’s only the start of the movie, though, so forgive the spoilers. The action then cuts to seven years later when the caller escapes from prison… and he has some people he’d like to dial up.
3. Scream (1996)
Like the two movies before it, Scream deploys a spin on the old urban legend. This time, though, there are two twists: First, the killer is not already inside the house when he places the call, though he’s certainly nearby. The second and bigger twist is that Wes Craven assumes his audience already knows the old urban legend, so he finds other ways to shock, startle, and scare in this meta-slasher.
Drew Barrymore is the key to this scene, and not just because she was such a big star that killing her off in the opening 10 minutes of the movie was totally unexpected. When Barrymore first picks up the phone, she’s having a nice time chatting. It’s almost flirty, and that makes the conversation’s descent to trivia and threats before culminating in actual, graphic violence extra effective.
4. The Ring (2002)
To be fair, television and a VHS cassette are the scariest pieces of technology in Gore Verbinski’s remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu. However, it’s the chilling phone call that anybody who watches the cursed tape gets — a voice warning them that they have “seven days” until they die — that earns The Ring a spot on this list.
The Ring does not riff on the old urban legend, and indeed the caller here is a supernatural force rather than a flesh-and-blood killer, but there’s still something legendary about how the call operates. The evil VHS tape is, in the fiction of The Ring, itself an urban legend — something that you watch only if you’re brave and/or foolish enough to. That the terrifying veracity of that legend is confirmed by a phone call seems only right.
5. One Missed Call (2008)
Before we hang this list up, we’ll end with our fifth and final film, One Missed Call, an American remake of Takashi Miike’s Japanese horror movie from 2003. (Another Miike horror film, Audition, also features a terrifying phone call, though this film seems more thematically relevant.)
The premise of One Missed Call — people get voicemails from themselves in the future specifying exactly when they will die — is a good one. However, One Missed Call is, if we’re being honest, not especially good. In fact, it’s quite bad. Actually, it’s one of the worst-reviewed horror movies in recent memory. But, just consider its inclusion on this list a homage to the real-life equivalent of phone horror: A spam call.
The Black Phone opens in theaters on June 24.