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After a brief foray into the MCU, director Scott Derrickson is back to doing what he does best, creating atmospheric dread. From his debut with the excellent and chilling The Exorcism of Emily Rose, to the disturbing Sinister, Derrickson’s forte is decidedly horror. The Black Phone which comes from a short story by Joe Hill proves that Derrickson is best suited to the genre, despite a certain paucity in Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay to fully flesh out the supernatural themes and give adequate characterisation to the antagonist.
The year is 1978 and the location is a suburban town in Denver. Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) are living under the cloud of a double threat. The town has been beset by child abductions which are rapidly coming closer to home. The siblings also live with their abusive alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies) who uses violence against the children as a way to maintain some level of control over his spiralling grief. Finney is a shy teen who has been on the receiving end of endless bullying by classmates as well as watching his sister being beaten by his father. Trauma has made Finney almost inert. He takes beatings and watches beatings with a weariness that is heartbreaking. The adults in his life have let him down, there is no authority figure who stands up for him. The free-range childhood of the 1970s is depicted by the absence of adults who are clued into what is really going on with their children or students.
When Finney’s best friend, local tough kid Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) is abducted by the bogeyman known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) a fatalism seems to engulf the young teen. Derrickson leverages Finney’s status as a kid that has victim written all over him for maximum effect. Whether it be home or school Finney faces daily dread. When The Grabber inevitably takes Finney the film begs the question “How can this kid survive, when others much stronger than him have not?” The answer lies with a disconnected black phone that is on the wall of the basement prison Finney is trapped in. The phone rings and the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims try to give Finney advice about how to stay alive and avoid being caught in the sadistic games The Grabber desperately wants to play.
Each of The Grabber’s victims have tried a process of escape and they pass on their knowledge to Finney. Finney tries to use each method but none of them work on their own. While Finney is trapped in the basement, his sister is having dreams (inherited from her mother) that are prophetic in nature and is desperately trying to work out where Finney is and how to save him. Gwen’s dreams are accurate enough that a baffled and thus far useless police force see fit to take them seriously as an investigative avenue.
The Black Phone uses tricks from Derrickson’s established playbook. The grainy super 8 aesthetic that was used to fine effect in Sinister returns here through the look of Gwen’s dreams. The mixture of styles reiterates the period setting of the film and gives the film an off-kilter mood that enhances the mix of serial killer and supernatural horror tropes.
There isn’t much in The Black Phone that is strikingly original. Inevitable comparisons will be made to It (written by Hill’s father, Stephen King). A horror film that is made from the perspective of the children involved has been done before, but what makes The Black Phone stand out is the relationship the Shaw siblings have which sits at the core of why the audience will care about Finney and his fate. Hawkes’ The Grabber is chilling because we don’t really learn anything about him. His face is hidden in an interchangeable demon mask (designed by the legendary Tom Savini) and his personality although obviously sadistic, is as obscured as his facial gestures. There is some implication that he too can hear the black phone and that there may be some trauma in his past, but none of that is explored significantly which leads the character to be somewhat a cipher. Hawkes does an admirable job with what he is given, relying on his voice and body language to display menace. However, as a horror antagonist he’s not interesting. Even Jason Voorhees is given some kind of backstory, whereas The Grabber seems to be more a generic serial killer dressed up in borrowed genre finery.
Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw deliver astonishingly good performances. The latter especially shows remarkable range that encompasses foul-mouthed humour, genuine distress, and a wise resilience that is profoundly important to connecting with the siblings. Derrickson makes the audience invested in their fate because we have come to know them as survivors. Thames and McGraw ensure that the film doubles as a coming-of-age narrative and that anchors the piece in a significant manner.
Horror films can live or die on what iconography they invoke. In the case of The Black Phone the supernatural elements and the small jump scares are less important than the audience needing Finney to match his will and wiles with The Grabber. The Black Phone tells a story about everyday trauma experienced by young people who have been failed by the adults in their lives and turns that metaphor into something tangible and relatable. Although there could be more meat on the bones to the narrative, what we are given is enough to satisfy those not expecting a gore or splatter fest. Derrickson choosing to make a horror story about kids from the perspective of kids is a canny move and one that generally succeeds. Expect to see McGraw and Thames on your screen more often – they’re stars in the making.
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