the black phone

Director: Scott Derrickson
Writer: Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies
Cinematographer: Brett Jutkiewicz
Editor: Frédéric Thoraval

To be the protagonist of a Scott Derrickson film is to have your faith tested. A hotshot defense attorney reconsiders her religious stance after being exposed to unexplained phenomena in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), a cynical cop learns the transformative power of prayer in Deliver Us From Evil (2014) and a man of science overcomes his initial skepticism of sorcery in Doctor Strange (2016). The director twists his recurring theme into its most effective form yet in The Black Phone, a chilling tale of abduction and captivity, from which emerges a powerful story of self-belief and inner strength. 

The theme also gives Derrickson a chance to dip back into his affinity for blending horror with other genres. In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the terror of a possession tale was diluted by the film repeatedly cutting to the courtroom drama that followed in its aftermath. In Deliver Us From Evil, an engaging police procedural turned lackluster after the investigation unearthed a spooky ancient entity. The Black Phone, however, is Derrickson’s finest horror film yet, striking a fine balance between genre thrills and a moving coming-of-age story. 

The film is seen through children’s eyes, but any sense of innocence or wide-eyed wonder is fleeting. Circumstances have forced young siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) to grow up before their time. (“Take care of dad” is a recurring refrain, and the image of an empty beer bottle in his hand, with three more drained on the table beside him, is a great example of economical storytelling.) Worry and insecurity have already begun to seep into life, even at that tender age, and Derrickson, adapting Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, films the gut-churning fear of a child hearing his bullies waiting outside your bathroom stall or being tongue-tied in front of a pretty girl with the same amount of empathy as he captures the fear of abusive parents and child abductors. The opening scenes feature sunny baseball games and DIY rockets set off in backyards, but slide into eerie opening credits, in which scraped knees, lost shoes and missing persons’ posters point to how frighteningly easy it is for childlike innocence to be lost. 

Set in a small Denver suburb in 1978, the film introduces a spate of child abductions by a mysterious figure (Ethan Hawke) dubbed ‘The Grabber’ by local news media. It isn’t long before Finney is taken too. Locked in his captor’s basement, Finney finds a damaged rotary phone that only he can hear ringing. On the other end are The Grabber’s past victims, who offer solace and urge him to look for ways to escape. While Finney must display a maturity older than his years, The Grabber regresses to childishness, inventing games with rules that only he knows, and waiting for his unwilling participant to slip up. A parallel supernatural story involves Gwen’s ability to fill in the gaps in the case through her dreams, a psychic ability she inherited from her late mother. Hawke’s posture and body language render him wordlessly terrifying, while Thames, who much of the movie is centered on, adeptly cycles between fear, confusion, anger and finally, conviction. The standout is McGraw, who’s instantly endearing as her foul-mouthed, kindhearted character, all while staying far enough from the tired ‘precocious child’ trope. 

The film is well-paced, with stretches that utilise silence and well-crafted spatial layouts to unnerving effect. Still, it’s the underlying message of self-belief that really shines, giving the movie its emotional core. It’s telling that throughout, children turn to other children for help, the adults in their lives having failed them time and time again. In the absence of any adult guidance, they find in themselves a strength they didn’t know existed. The Black Phone is a tightrope act — alternately thrilling and tender, and the reason it works so well despite these tonal disparities is because of how full its heart is, even when it’s making yours throb painfully in fright.

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