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The Black Phone

Studio: Blumhouse
Writer/Director: Scott Derrickson

Jul 05, 2022 Web Exclusive
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Director Scott Derrickson’s return to the horror genre after a brief foray into the Marvel universe (with 2016’s Doctor Strange) could not have been timelier. Nearly a decade after releasing his phenomenal sleeper hit Sinister, second only to director Jordan Peele’s Us as the greatest horror offering of the 2010s, Derrickson has reunited with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill and leading man Ethan Hawke for an informal follow-up to his underrated 2012-released masterpiece. An adaptation of Joe Hill’s 2004-published short story of the same name, The Black Phone sees Derrickson and Cargill adhering only to the basic premise of Hill’s original plot, the duo crafting instead a deeply personal, semi-autobiographical period narrative, in which society’s greatest monsters are not family annihilating Babylonian demons or possessed children, but mortals made of flesh and blood. Derrickson, a 55-year-old Colorado native, has remarked upon finding inspiration in the prominence of such nostalgia trips as Stranger Things, which often wistfully paint the 1970s and ’80s as romantic eras, both quaint and colorful. The director, however, recalls the late-’70s quite differently, and has succeeded in thumbing his nose at the booming nostalgia market through his bleak depiction of the decade based on his personal experience: Derrickson’s Carter era is gritty, decaying, and violent, its dingy streets haunted by the near mythical presence of a prolific serial child abductor known only as The Grabber.

As with director David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac, location plays a major role in The Black Phone, the working class suburb of North Denver providing a distinctive geographic and economic atmosphere which permeates the film’s every scene. A menacing greenish haze overhangs its outdoor shots as its young protagonists roam desolate streets flanked by rusted chain-link fences plastered with missing child flyers, while a certain claustrophobia invades each indoor sequence, whether in The Grabber’s shadowy cellar or the children’s own houses. An effective slow-burner, the film allows the viewer to marinate in its setting, as we are acquainted with the neighborhood’s inhabitants, at the forefront of whom are siblings Finney and Gwen Blake, two phenomenal performances by Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, respectively. A couple of years Gwen’s senior, Finney is meek and more overtly sensitive in comparison to his male peers, rendering him the perfect target for bullies, who harass and brutalize him and others like himself. Gwen, on the other hand, is bold and outgoing, with a resilient heart and sailor’s mouth. A scene in which Gwen attempts to intervene as her older brother is pummeled by a gang of bullies by striking one in the head with a stone, only to be beaten down herself, establishes her as the film’s strongest character.

Finney and Gwen live with their abusive alcoholic father Terrence (a nearly subhuman Jeremy Davies), who resents Gwen for her apparent clairvoyance, an otherworldly ability inherited from her late mother. As Terrence lumbers about, slurring, grunting, and beating his children senseless, one cannot help but feel that Davies, himself one of modern indie cinema’s finest performers, may have overplayed the entire “drunk dad” trope, reducing his character to a mere comic book stereotype in most scenes. One receives the impression that most of the Blake’s classmates have similar homelives, with the exception of kids such as golden-hearted streetfighter and eventual Grabber victim Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), whose father was killed while serving in Vietnam. As Finney navigates the human horrors of junior high school, Gwen is plagued by dreams of The Grabber’s victims, who send her cryptic messages she attempts to decipher, only to be punished by her father for sharing them with her classmates. We witness the blitz attacks and abductions of many of these children by a faceless figure in a black van throughout the film’s first half, the sense of greater danger apart from fathers and bullies being established and successfully maintained throughout.

This brings us to what is perhaps The Black Phone’s highest point of intrigue: Ethan Hawke as the sadistic, child-murdering Grabber. Little is revealed of the Grabber’s identity, though we learn that he works part-time as a magician and lives in the area with his unemployed cokehead brother Max (a bit of comic relief provided by James Ransone, better known for his role as Sinister and Sinister 2’s beloved Deputy So-and-So). Derrickson and Hawke’s decision to leave the Grabber’s identity and motives (though it is clear that he is also a product of severe childhood abuse) relatively ambiguous works in the character’s favor, boosting him to an almost supernatural status, a personification of “stranger danger” culture’s tendency to mythologize the nature of pedophilic predators such as himself, spawning abundances of local urban legends and campfire tales for generations to come. Hawke, greasy, disheveled, and almost always masked, treads fresh water as an actor, having only ventured into such territory a time or two before, most notably on 2004’s critical flop Taking Lives. The Grabber is, however, far more unsettling than Taking Lives’ Martin Asher could ever have dreamt of being, with Hawke becoming unrecognizable at times, the mercurial psychopathy of his character crafting yet another mask for him to don as he taunts and terrorizes his victims. Hawke, who was initially hesitant to accept the role, has proven once more that he is still among his generation’s greatest actors. One hopes that The Black Phone will open more doors for him to further explore such damaged psyches, perhaps beginning his next act as a promising “villainous” actor (Hawke was also the antagonist in the recent Marvel/Disney+ TV series Moon Knight).

Naturally, Finney finds himself locked in The Grabber’s cellar, where the purgatory-bound spirits of previous victims communicate with him via a disconnected antique phone, which The Grabber can also hear, but refuses to believe in. As Finney fights for survival, Gwen runs afoul of, and then uses her psychic gift to assist two hapless detectives (minor performances by E. Robert Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal), while attempting to steer clear of her father. There are some genuinely frightening moments throughout the film, with Hawke and Thames creating a frequently overwhelming sense of tension during their interactions. Still, one may wish that the Grabber had appeared more often than he did, as Finney was left alone in the cellar much of the time. Since Finney refused to play The Grabber’s “game,” the serial killer could not progress to the next stage, his “favorite part”—whatever that might’ve been—with both man and boy lying in wait for one another much of the time. Still, the film’s climax is brutal, bloody, and cathartic—entirely worth the wait. It is relieving that such a grim tale carries at its conclusion a somewhat happy ending, though talks of a potential sequel are already being held between Derrickson and Hill, leaving fertile soil for The Grabber’s eventual resurrection.

The Black Phone, while inferior to Sinister, remains among the modern horror genre’s stronger entries, due largely to masterful performances by Thames, McGraw and Hawke. Derrickson’s decision to revisit his own childhood trauma through the film’s setting and characters (many of the kids here are based on friends and classmates from his youth) has prevented the film from becoming another run-of-the-mill horror outing and his desire to counter the current nostalgia trend has added a layer of authenticity to the entire endeavor, with the film functioning well as both a thrilling horror experience and convincing period piece. In lieu of Sinister 3, which would’ve been wonderful, The Black Phone is a satisfying alternative to Bagul’s return, and Derrickson and Cargill still appear to have much up their sleeves, giving us plenty to await (and/or dread) in the future. (www.theblackphonemovie.com)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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