By George Bate and Josh Reilly B.
“Do you want to see a magic trick?”
Scott Derrickson’s latest venture into the horror genre, after his excellent work on Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, sees the writer/director pull off a magic trick of sorts in crafting a disturbing, unnerving, and captivating film that feels like it was made in the decade it was set in – the 1970s.
The Black Phone takes place in 1978 in a small suburb in Colorado affected by the mysterious vanishing of various children. The serial killer, dubbed the Grabber (played by Ethan Hawke), eventually captures a young boy named Finney (played by Mason Thames), who tries to escape the Grabber’s clutches with the help of a mysterious black phone.
The Black Phone excels in being a horror movie on several nuanced levels. On the surface, the premise is horrifying. A creepy man sporting a devil mask kidnaps and kills children. But there’s horror that extends beyond the premise. The Black Phone offers a disturbing portrayal of child abuse and teen violence that, at times, equals the horror of its more overt moments of terror. From a scene involving a young girl being beaten with a belt to a group of teens brutally beating up another kid, there are scenes, especially in the film’s first act, that are genuinely and purposefully difficult to watch and most certainly stay with you.
The world Derrickson creates in The Black Phone is one that feels so authentically 1970s. The attention to detail in the production and costume design, coupled with a beige color palette captured by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz and Derrickson’s expert use of old, grainy film, deserves significant praise. The Black Phone is not simply set in 1978, but feels like a film moviegoers could have went to see in a theater in 1978. Derrickson doesn’t overpopulate his film with classic tunes of the era to incessantly remind audiences of its setting. Rather, he takes the time to craft an atmosphere that is undoubtedly 1970s-80s suburban horror vis-à-vis Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
After a somewhat prolonged first act that takes its time to establish the threat of the Grabber and the two main characters, siblings Gwen (played by Madeline McGraw) and Finney, The Black Phone situates itself largely within the confines of a small basement area. It’s with this stripped down approach to storytelling that limits the plot to essentially one confined area that the actors’ performances shine. Ethan Hawke is nothing short of a remarkable as the truly terrifying Grabber, something that is all the more applause-worthy given that Hawke is masked (in one way or another) for virtually every scene. Hawke’s haunting performance shines, not only through the terrifying mask, but through his gravely tone of voice that vibrates under the mask. Hawke delivers an expert performance in non-verbal acting as his subtle gestures, posture, gait, and so on have a profound effect on the horror Derrickson is trying to capture. Similarly excellent are Thames and McGraw as the two child leads. Their performances perhaps mark some of the best in horror cinema of all time. McGraw, in particular, performs a heart wrenching scene in the film’s first act and also effectively delivers the film’s moments of humor. Thames, meanwhile, as the young Finney captured by the Grabber, brings so much maturity and nuance to his performance. Nothing is overdone, every decision he makes as an actor feels so purposeful and immersive.
Given Derrickson’s masterful directing and the slew of incredible performances on display, it’s a shame that The Black Phone’s plot fizzles out in rather underwhelming fashion. The Black Phone is a clever movie. It’s characters are clever, the dialogue is clever, every moment feels so intelligently constructed and thought about. It’s a film that is begging for a clever conclusion that never comes. Although there is certainly a place for abstraction and unanswered questions in horror, the film’s important dots are never connected in a meaningful way. This leaves The Black Phone as a horror film that just falls short of brilliance. Disappointingly little is revealed of the inner-workings of this serial killer / ghost story that the ending comes across as abrupt and somewhat unsatisfactory.
The Black Phone is another masterfully crafted horror film from writer/director Scott Derrickson. A 1970s horror film in the truest sense, The Black Phone couples intense scares with immersive performances in a film that will undoubtedly hold audiences’ attention from the first frame to the last. A somewhat disappointing and underwhelming conclusion means The Black Phone falls short of true brilliance, but it’s nonetheless a thrilling and captivating experience.