Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke
Run Time: 103 mins
The Black Phone sees horror maestro Scott Derrickson return to his roots, a director most famed for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and his magnum opus, Sinister. More recently, Derrickon’s experienced a spell with Marvel, directing Doctor Strange which was one of my favourite entries in the ever-expanding canon. Not only was it visually arresting, but his authorship was somewhat on display, which is often the downfall of many a Marvel film.
Derrickson was meant to direct its sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and intended to further lean into his horror credentials with it but ended up departing over creative differences. Sam Raimi, another director esteemed for his work in the horror genre, ultimately stepped in and whilst the film is successful, I’d argue Derrickson’s vision could have been something very special.
The Black Phone sees Derrickson reteam with writer C. Robert Cargill, this time adapting a short story of the same name by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King. Set in a Denver suburb, a serial child abductor dubbed ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) roams the streets. We follow a 13 year old boy called Finney (Mason Thames) who has a close relationship with his supportive, psychic sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). They live with their alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies) after their mother died in a suicide. Gwen’s abilities take after her mother and Terrence tries to beat it out of her. Finney struggles bullying at school.
Finney is abducted by ‘The Grabber’ and locked in a cellar. There is a disconnected phone which rings and when Finney answers, it is the voices of the previous victims who give him advice on how to deal with the situation. Gwen receives visions and she leads her own investigation to try and free Finney.
The Black Phone is an excellent, intelligent horror film that is very well-directed by Derrickson. He crafts a delicious setting, leaning into 1970’s suburbia and isn’t afraid of unflinchingly portraying playground violence. Derrickson takes the narrative to dark places and the fast pacing grips you instantly. The film is very cine-literate, with Derrickon’s passion for film evident on the screen, be through the inclusion of period television shows from the time and the playful nods to It. On that note of the nods to Stephen King, it’s not unreasonable that his son carries some of his traits such as a community of children going missing, but it’s not derivative and the tone isn’t cynical.
The script by Derrickson and Cargill deftly humanises the characters through meaningful arcs and avoids resorting to caricatures. There are also some exhilarating set pieces and I loved the creative choice to portray some of the previous victim’s lives on grainy film, which was another highlight of Sinister. The film is further bolstered by an interesting and unnerving score by Mark Korven and it’s beautifully shot by Brett Jutkiewicz.
The cast are excellent, especially Thame and McGraw who make an explosive impression. Thame makes for a compelling lead and deftly carries the baggage from bullied school kid to learning to stand up for himself. McGraw’s foul-mouthed but heroic sister gets many of the film’s best lines and she is surely destined for greatness. Her dream sequences are beautifully captured and possess a metaphysical quality.
Hawke is also terrific – he has not played a villain on-screen before and ‘The Grabber’ is an unhinged and suitably sinister screen presence. The costume design for the character is brilliant, as he literally dons a threatening multi-layered mask. I wish his character was given a little more meat though and his interactions with Finney were longer or more frequent to make the horror villain really stand the test of time but I can understand why Derrickson would want to go down a more enigmatic route.
The weak link of the cast is surprisingly James Ransone as a cocaine addict who is also trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, independent of the police. It’s not that his performance is lacking but the character isn’t particularly well developed and a plot revelation that involves him felt out of place.
Although the film aligns most closely with the horror genre, it’s not particularly frightening. There are some jump scares here and there and Derrickson conjures a generally creepy atmosphere but the film is more of a psychological thriller with supernatural elements.
The Black Phone is a terrific ride from start to finish and further cements Derrickson as a master of the horror genre. It features some terrific performances from its child actors and Ethan Hawke and it’s a film that feels like it’s made with passion. It’s not perfect – Hawke’s villain could have been further explored, Ransone’s character arc isn’t very well executed and I wish the film further explored the link between overcoming one’s demons and the repercussions stemmed from that. Sinister remains Derrickson’s best work, however The Black Phone is up there and is one of the best films of the year so far.