Ever since Alexander Graham Bell first rang up his boy Watson in 1876, telephones have claimed a space in the human imagination, bringing other voices into our minds with a disembodied quality that’s just perfect for the horror genre.
To celebrate the release of Scott Derrickson’s retro horror movie The Black Phone, we’re looking back at some of the spookiest phone calls in cinema history, from creepy David Lynch moments and highly-recommended Aussie short films to single-location thrillers that still ring with fear to this day.
One of Hollywood’s greatest femmes fatale forgoes any stylish noir characterisations to play a full-on jerk in this chilling, twisty thriller. Over a bit less than 90 minutes, a bed-bound Barbara Stanwyck is terrorised by her past mistakes, unable to escape the confines of her room as a taunting killer lurks ever closer: she’s screwed over her husband and friends too much for them to help. The titular final line of the film will either make you shiver or smirk.
Hitch also produced this marital thriller in eye-popping 3D, bringing a fatal pair of scissors zooming out into the audience’s eyes. It stars Ray Milland and Grace Kelly as a tennis pro and his philandering socialite wife: his call to her as a murderous associate looms in the background is his botched alibi, with cops wavering between finding the husband and wife each responsible for her poorly plotted killing. You’ll find the Master of Suspense’s cameo about 13 minutes in, in a black-and-white group photo.
A babysitter, a big empty house, and a final reveal that “the calls are coming from inside the house!” Inspiring the opening scene of Scream and countless campfire stories, this Fred Walton horror film was the first to bring a stale old urban legend to the screen. It’s fine, but for something more interesting and focused on Carol Kane’s heroic survivor, hunt down the made-for-TV sequel When A Stranger Calls Back.
You can watch the entirety of this bewitching student film above, directed by Aussie filmmaker Jamie Blanks before he went on to make Urban Legend. It’s a short, impeccably made haunter, all fog and low-lighting as a babysitting teen keeps getting calls from a desperate disembodied voice. Here’s why phones are such a simple (and low-budget!) device in creating ethereal scares: all it takes is that instant connection with a stranger to make us distrust our very ears, and belief in what’s real.
Already a horror legend, Wes Craven proved his mastery of the genre in just ten minutes, rug-pulling 90s audiences with a Drew Barrymore cameo that devolved into nerve-shredding cruelty. Phones and somewhat supernaturally convincing voice changers have stayed central to the Scream series, with Ghostface’s sneering horror fandom tormenting generations of teens.
Perhaps a distant cousin of Twin Peaks‘ The Man From Another Place, Robert Blake’s Mystery Man approaches our protagonist at a party with the most chilling explanation for where they’ve met before. Bill Pullman doesn’t recall meeting at his house, asking “are you sure?” “Of course”, the white-faced entity smiles, “in fact I’m there right now. At your house. Call me. Dial your number.” In a film of doppelgängers and male power fantasies, the sequence cuts right through as Lost Highway‘s most unnerving.
The more terrifying electrical appliance in this groundbreaking bit of J-Horror might be a VCR, but once the film’s curious reporter has seen that cursed tape, it’s followed up by an unforgettably haunting phone call: Sadako’s polite reminder that she’ll drop by in seven days. Ringu‘s huge box office success and effective American remake sparked terror in viewers worldwide, and it’s still a striking foray into the modern world of virality. The lame 2017 internet-centric sequel didn’t cover anything new to this bold original.
Shot in just ten days and running shorter than 90 minutes, Phone Booth was briefly shelved by maximalist director Joel Schumacher due to the gruesomely similar attacks of the D.C. snipers. Colin Farrell gives a livewire performance as a Broadway asshole in the crosshairs of an omniscient sniper, voiced with doom-and-gloom by Kiefer Sutherland. Sure, Farrell’s cheating on his wife and seems to be a slimy guy, but by the end of his single-location hostage horrors, we pray for his redemption.
Scheduling in your impending doom? There’s an app for that! We had to include a smartphone-era scare in our list, so switch your device (and brain) to silent for this silly high-concept horror. It’s about a nurse who flippantly downloads an app foretelling the user’s time of death, and finds that she’s only got three days to beat the reaper. That’s why you should always read the fine print on the user agreement…
Unlike its neighbours on this list, The Black Phone has telecommunication as a force of salvation, when Ethan Hawke’s creepy child-killing “Grabber” dumps his latest find in a basement with a disconnected phone. It’s a little bit Sinister, a little bit It (the script is based on a short story by Stephen King’s own son), with our young hero using the ghostly calls of Hawke’s past victims to attempt his escape. Don’t let this delayed scary flick go to voicemail.