Black Phone (2021)
A few years ago, the film Sinister absolutely put me on my butt. It had been such a long time since I’d seen a horror film that actually felt like a horror story, and not just gore for gores sake, or that post-millennial ghost story trope that teens and regular cinema goers gravitate towards like The Conjuring or Insidious: you know, that easy, non-threatening ghostly rubbish made for mass market that is not much different from a movie from the Marvel or Star Wars universe.
That film came out in 2012 and there was a massively disappointing sequel released a few years later but to me with that first film, writer/ director Scott Derrickson parked his creative car firmly into the parking station of my brain. I admit I was excited at his employment as the director of the 2016 Doctor Strange film, being a fan of the character, and whilst I liked the film, I was disappointed by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the lead, not because I don’t like him as an actor, but instead due to his horrible American accent.
The idea of Derrickson making a film based on a short story of Joe Hill’s, from his 20th Century Ghost compilation (also republished/ repackaged as The Black Phone And Other Stories to cash in on the film’s release) is a great one, and the expansion of that prose with the incorporation of his own upbringing in a violent neighbourhood in the 70s really rounds the tale off perfectly, with the juxtaposition of the violence of familial assault, bullying and a serial child murderer being so in line that I’m still not sure after several viewings, which was the worse situation.
The Black Phone tells of a small town in Denver, Colorado that has become the hunting grounds of a serial child killer called ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) by the local papers.
Several boys who go to the same school as Finney (Mason Thames) have already been taken, by the Grabber, including a tough kid who defended Him against the school bullies, and parents are on edge.
Finney’s sister, Gwen (Madeline McGraw) has inherited her mother’s second sight, and much to her father’s (Jeremy Davies) dismay, has been talking to the police regarding one of the missing boys, and she continues to use it after Finney is inevitably taken.
After being attacked when stopping to help a children’s magician, Finney finds himself trapped in the basement owned by the magician, aka The Grabber. The basement is soundproofed, with just a single window, a bare bed, and strangely, a black phone hanging on the wall.
The black phone, of course, no longer works, but for some reason, Finney hears it ring, and when answered, he is visited by the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, all of whom have advice on how to survive The Grabber’s advances… but will Finney be able to escape?
Derrickson has taken a very short story by Joe Hill and has expanded upon it using elements of his own childhood, growing up in Denver, Colorado. He mentions in the commentary that some parts of the script writing process felt like therapy. The incredible thing about the story is the upbringing is so violent, the bullying so intense and the parental beatings so brutal that when Finney gets taken by The Grabber, it feels like a release, and that before he was taken that the other kids have a subtle, nuanced jealousy of those no longer subject to the abuse.
This is a difficult thing to convey and not an idea you’d expect in a horror movies as it sounds more like a family drama film. The key to having this idea work was to have a cast capable of doing it, and even though Derrickson had many young actors in their roles, they were able to do so perfectly. Derrickson proves himself to very much be an actor’s director with how delicate those performances are.
The whole atmosphere is created with Derrickson’s choices in the presentation of the film. The soundtrack is provided by Mark Korven of The VVitch and The Lighthouse and when you consider Derrickson claims the pitch to him was ‘childhood trauma’, he absolutely hammered it home. These sounds in co-operation with the visuals which appear VHS-like at times, and in psychic visions have the grain of a Super 8, make for a film that has a Texas Chain Saw Massacre styled documentary or old news footage feel, which makes it all so much more effective.
The film was a wonderful example of modern horror filmmaking, and especially one done without a generic, so-called ‘true’ ghost story attached to it. I honestly can’t recommend seeing this film enough; it truly is a modern classic of horror movie storytelling. Do me one favourite please, Hollywood: you’ve made a wonderful, original film, please don’t consider remaking or sequelising this film.
Disc: This film was reviewed using the Australian Bluray release, which contains the following extras.
There are 2 deleted scenes which as usual, the film doesn’t suffer for them being absent.
There is a bunch of shorts that make up the next 4 extras that honestly, I suspect would have been far more interesting as a 40 minute ‘making of’ instead of a selection of shorts.
Ethan Hawke’s Evil Turn sees Hawke discuss what it takes to create an ‘evil’ character for a film, and then there is the usual ‘he’s so scary’ accompanying stuff. Hawke’s commentary about playing The Grabber is certainly interesting.
Answering the Call: Behind the scenes of The Black Phone is a usual BTS styled thing, and it only goes for ten minutes, but still some of the sound bytes are interesting. There is a bit of circle-jerk offing as you would expect, but it still offers some insights to the making of the film.
Devil in the Design looks not just at the style of the Grabber and his basement cell, but also making it look like the 70s, and how it felt like it was real, and properly lived in.
Super 8 Set briefly discusses the use of Super 8 film to signify the dreams from the film, and how it’s appearance gives an unsettling feeling.
Shadowprowler – a Short Film by Scott Derrickson was filmed during lock down and stars, and is based upon an idea by his son Dashiell, with the music provided by his other son, Atticus, who also plays in the film. It’s a quirky little home-made horror film about home invasion made by a family who was bored whilst living in Kevin Sorbo’s house.
There is an amazing director’s commentary with Scott Derrickson which acts as both a discussion on the creation of his own film, and his own upbringing. Occasionally it almost seems like Derrickson is exorcising some ghosts from his own past, maybe he was, but the entire commentary is a must listen.