It’s For You — The Black Phone
Scott Derrickson is a fairly accomplished filmmaker, spending the better part of the last 20 years establishing some serious credibility in the realm of horror. Between the Sinister series, Deliver Us From Evil, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the man knows how to reach fans of the genre. Curiously, though, his success led to him taking the reins of Doctor Strange, a departure from his normal output to be sure. He knocked that out of the park as well, so naturally he was tapped for the sequel.
He ended up leaving the project due to unspecified “creative differences,” but after seeing Multiverse of Madness, my guess is he left because of the absolute deluge of bullshit Disney was trying to cram into the proceedings. Sam Raimi was left to pick up the pieces of that cinematic stillbirth, and Derrickson moved on to his next project, The Black Phone.
This quickly turned into one of the most anticipated movies of the year for me. For one, I wanted to see how Derrickson would bounce back from Marvel’s abuse. Second, the trailer looked more intriguing than I would have possibly thought. Third, Ethan Hawke. And fourth, early reception was universally positive. This is a film that was originally slated for a January release, during the normal studio dump of doomed projects. It was then moved to February, ostensibly because of the pandemic. But then it was shifted all the way to June and the Summer Blockbuster Season. This is because during its festival run last fall, critics who saw it praised it up and down, and as such the film maintained a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for more than six months. Clearly the early viewers were seeing something that Blumhouse wasn’t, and it was enough to change the studio’s mind and attempt a competitive release.
Now, since it’s come out and been screened to wider audiences and more critics, the score has come down, as any reasonable person knew it would. But it still sits at 83%, which is pretty damn good. Looking at various reviews, the two main critiques were that the young characters weren’t properly defined and that the story devolved into a series of jump scares. This genuinely concerned me, because I started to wonder if my patent-pending Jump Fail scale would have to come into play and potentially skew the score for what might otherwise be a pretty decent bit of terror.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, and honestly, I’m more curious as to what film the detractors actually saw. Because neither of those major sticking points are accurate. Not only is The Black Phone a genuinely gripping piece of suspense on its own merits, the two points that some think drag the film down are actually among the better features.
And yes, this includes the jump scares. First of all, the Jump Fail protocol doesn’t even come into play, as my rule states that we only start docking points after five jump scares. I only counted four. Amazingly though, of those four, three of them are germane to the overall story, which means I wouldn’t have counted them against the total anyway, as I only note the tacked-on ones that are just lazy attempts to make us flinch and have nothing to do with the proceedings. Going further, one of those three relevant scares is actually genuinely startling, because the setup doesn’t telegraph the moment at all. It was legitimately surprising, and because it was so well-executed, I actually enjoyed my body’s reflex.
As for the young cast, they often sell the film more than its star. And this is where we get into the story. Set in 1978 in north Denver, the movie begins with a little league game featuring our main protagonist, Finney Blake (Mason Thames). He’s a pitcher who looks to have an amazing arm. He’s eventually bested by an opposing batter, Bruce Yamada (Tristan Pravong), who hits a walk-off home run. In a refreshing subversion of clichés, Bruce actually compliments Finney after the game, showing a degree of respect and sportsmanship not often seen in these types of movies. It is when Bruce rides home on his bike, high on his accomplishments and possibly making a new friend/rival that he encounters a black van, and the scene fades out.
This is a brilliant setup. The characters instantly have depth, even one who will have almost no role beyond the first five minutes. The threat is introduced with a degree of subtlety rather than a cheap scare. The horror immediately becomes real because anyone is at risk, and there’s no visible monster, not to mention the fact that child abduction is a very real fear for every parent. There’s a reason the phrase is “hits close to home.”
Bruce becomes the latest victim of an urban legend kidnapper known as “The Grabber,” eventually played by Ethan Hawke. No one can track him down, yet youngsters are disappearing left and right, with Bruce being the fourth to be taken. And yet, despite this unseen threat, life goes on for Finney and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), as well as the rest of the community. It is not a good life, mind you, as Finney is constantly bullied and Gwen is abused by their alcoholic father Terrance (Jeremy Davies), but there are hints of happiness and resilience. Finney has a good friend in Robin (Cazarez Mora), who protects him from the worst the neighborhood with his fighting ability, and even is able to attract the attention of the girls in his middle school, while Gwen can hold her own in a fight as well, spends time with her own group of friends, and has some of the better dialogue in the movie.
One such line goes a long way to establishing both the stakes of the story as well as the strength of Finney and Gwen’s family bond. After Bruce is abducted, the pair walks home, seeing police vehicles pass them by, knowing another search is underway. “Do you think they’ll find him?” asks Finney. Gwen’s glib response, “Not the way they want to.”
Savage. Just fucking savage. It’s clever, pithy, and dark as fuck. More importantly, for such an early moment in the film, the line stands as an incredible bit of foreshadowing. But the highest point of all is that it shows us the rapport between these two characters, how they depend on each other from both an emotional and storytelling standpoint. This is some amazing development, and we’re only a few minutes in. Again, what film were the harsher critics watching? Because objectively, their complaints are false.
The movie takes its time in setting up the action before Finney is eventually taken himself. Social and familial stakes are well established. A dour mood is effectively set. Gwen is fleshed out as possibly having some sort of extra-sensory perception, as she has dreams that show details of the disappearances that aren’t known to the public, particularly the discovery of black balloons at the scenes of the abductions. This leads her to be questioned by two detectives (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal), and there’s a level of insecure rebellion in her interactions with them that surprisingly endears her to the audience, not to mention giving us some of the very few laughs this otherwise extremely dark film has.
For instance, she interprets her dreams as a potential sign from God and Jesus that she should find some way to help solve this case, and eventually save her brother once he’s taken. She even converts her dollhouse into a makeshift shrine. But she gets little usable information from her nightmares, only vague images. She gets so frustrated that she pleads, “Dear Jesus, WHAT THE FUCK?!” It’s yet another fantastic subversion of the very tired horror trope of tying anything supernatural into Christian tradition, as if only this one religion could have any influence. Gwen and Finney themselves serve as something of a juxtaposition, as Gwen feels a more spiritual connection to everything, while Finney, carrying around a model of the Saturn V rocket everywhere as a good luck charm, finds solace in the scientific. The way these influences play off each other as the story progresses and resolves is really well done.
Anyway, in the main action, Finney is eventually kidnapped by the Grabber, played with diabolical glee by Hawke, who accomplishes so much menace while almost never showing his face. Apart from a brief look during the abduction, he wears a demonic mask throughout with detachable pieces, so that only occasionally is his mouth or eyes seen. Like a fucked up version of the comedy and tragedy classic drama masks, the face he puts on becomes the persona he puts forward in his interactions with Finney, promising to let him go, feed him, and be his friend when the mask looks kind, but lashing out in more sadistic terms when he dons an angry one.
Finney is locked in a threadbare basement with a toilet, bare mattress, and a window for light. No one can hear his cries for help, as the Grabber lets him know that he personally soundproofed the room. When the door is open, we can hear hints of another person and a dog in the house, but they cannot hear what goes on downstairs.
Prominently displayed on the wall is the titular black phone, which has long been disconnected. However, when Finney is all alone, he can hear the phone ring. Picking it up, he begins talking to the ghosts of the Grabber’s previous victims, all of whom give Finney clues to potentially escape, or at minimum prolong his life by not playing along with the Grabber’s game. Not only does this effectively keep the story moving at a good pace, it’s honestly a very clever execution, as the help given always comes with a frightening degree of urgency, rather than any kind of comfort and solace that this very scared youth desperately craves in his hour of need. There’s very little pity for Finn’s situation from his literal predecessors, which grants the situation an unexpected dose of credible reality. No time for hugs, boy, time to get the fuck out or die.
This is another example of where I legitimately wonder how the harsher critics can miss something so obvious. Some comment that the characters are underdeveloped, yet the voices on the other end of the phone all belong to distinct, well-developed personalities, even in their small, utilitarian roles. We get glimpses into who these young men were, for better and worse, because Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill want us to truly feel their loss. These aren’t one-note victims who were just innocent ideals of youth, but people who had lives. One was an overachiever, another one a random paperboy, still another a hotheaded bully. They all have traits that expand beyond the one-dimensional, and each of them has a different perspective on not just their own fate, but their responsibility to help Finney. Because of that, we as an audience can sympathize with their plight as well as Finn’s, and that ups the stakes. These were people who couldn’t work it all out, and as such, their lives were cut tragically short in likely horrific fashion that only bloody makeup hints at. By making sure we know who they were, we feel their loss more deeply, and that gets us more emotionally invested, because we don’t want to see Finney suffer the same fate (or worse) and have to join this choir of the damned for the next victim.
This goes back to that absolutely whip smart dichotomy that Gwen and Finney represent. Gwen thinks she has some sort of gift that may come from the divine, but she can’t put it to the use she wants. Its mere existence inspires fear and violence in her father (the reasoning for it, plus Finney’s disappearance, goes a long way towards humanizing Terrance without excusing his behavior, a welcome bit of nuance), and she rarely gets enough information to act on anything. Contrast that with Finney, who is essentially in his own horror escape room (one I’m guessing is infinitely more entertaining and suspenseful than the actual Escape Room horror movies), and has all the tools needed for his salvation, but requires supernatural help to put all the pieces together. The religious one can’t get any true facts, while the scientific one needs an outside influence to help him solve a real problem. But on both sides, it works because they each have their own desperate need to get this right, with life-or-death consequences should they fail.
There is one final criticism that has cropped up here and there, and really, it’s hardly worth noting. There are a fair few who knock the film as a ripoff of Stranger Things, which is just silly. I’m not a fan of the show, but just because there’s a horror story in a retro setting does not mean it’s truly derivative. The film does wear its references on its sleeve, particularly to Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King, but it’s mostly to put a new spin on the ideas or to subvert tropes, so what does it matter? Also, Stranger Things itself was created as a ripoff/homage (depending on your taste) to King’s work, so what was that you were calling the kettle?
This film succeeds to an insane degree because it brings together a ton of genre elements that on their own would be easily susceptible to cliché and instead finds new ways to make them thrilling. There are jump scares, but they’re used sparingly and relevantly so that they actually work. There’s a creepy villain who disguises himself as a children’s entertainer to the real world without devolving into unintentional clown comedy. There are supernatural elements that work in tandem with science and reality rather than handwaving them away for a cheap scare. The characters are given all the information they need to solve the problem, but they actually have to grow and learn over the course of the film and figure shit out rather than being saved by a deus ex machina.
Hell, even the one major plot hole I thought would stick out ends up being an example of how well all of this is constructed. I’ll explain. In the basement where Finney’s being kept, the window is covered by a metal grate. One of the ghosts help him figure out how to remove it, in hopes that he might be able to open the window and escape. You would think that once the grate is gone, the Grabber would notice its absence and accelerate his murderous scheme. However, the film goes to clever lengths to make sure this isn’t the case. See, the Grabber likes to stand in the doorway when he’s talking to Finney, as it’s part of the game he’s playing. It’s a power move, daring the boy to make a run for it or attempt to beat him in a fight, which would trigger his more sadistic ends. Because of that, he almost never steps fully into the room, and the door opens to his right, the same direction as the wall where the window sits. As such, the door itself obscures his view, and he likely never sees that the window grate is missing. On the two occasions that he does enter all the way, he’s far too distracted by the circumstances of the scene to really bother paying attention to the room’s layout, so it’s perfectly reasonable that he’d never look up at the window. He’d have no reason to. And thus, the plot hole is instantly closed.
That’s how you make great suspense and horror. It comes down to character and writing, and this film shows you exactly how to do it properly. There’s just enough establishment and exposition to know how the characters would reasonably act and what their motivations are. As such, we can suspend disbelief properly in the more fantastical moments knowing the framework and realistic elements hold up under scrutiny. This also includes creating a threat that feels real to the lives of the people in the audience. The answers are all hidden in plain sight, you just have to know how to make it all work. Everything you need is at your disposal, so long as you have the ability to put it all to proper use. In a year where there have been plenty of “good” movies but very few “great” ones, The Black Phone instantly rises to the early pantheon of 2022.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What A-list actor do you think would make a great horror villain? How good are you at escape room puzzles? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on July 3, 2022.