Scott Derrickson has, over a series of films, established a reputation not only as a strong director of horror cinema but a versatile one too. Whether working with stories of possession (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), demonic gore (Sinister), or even weaving light horror elements into a Hollywood superhero movie (Doctor Strange), Derrickson has a talent for adapting his style to meet the best tone of each project. His most recent, The Black Phone, adapts a story by author Joe Hill. It is a wonderfully effective blend of the supernatural and the serial killer movie, with a stronger depth than the genre usually provides.
An anonymous figure known as “the Grabber” haunts a Denver suburb, amassing a growing tally of missing children. When Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) becomes the Grabber’s latest victim, he becomes trapped in a soundproof basement with no sign of help saved for a disconnected telephone that mysteriously begins to ring.
So far, so generic: both supernatural thrillers and serial killer narratives have populated American cinemas for many decades. There is a strong sense of old tropes being recycled and re-arranged here, admittedly with stylish flourishes and a some handsome presentation. The Grabber’s grotesque, ever-present mask is certainly memorable and eye-catching, and pleasingly difficult to get one’s head around. Ethan Hawke, reuniting with Derrickson after Sinister, does an excellent job of acting from behind the mask. It is always challenging for an actor to perform without all of their assets, but he does marvellously here in a role that is very much against type.
While there are plenty of unearthly and gory moments here to please the genre faithful, it is largely acting as a mask as well. At the core of The Black Phone there is a story about a wounded boy finding the strength to stand up for himself. It is as much ‘coming of age’ as ‘run from the monster’, and that is very much to its credit.
Finney is under-confident and afraid. He is bullied at school – aggressively so – and at home he and his younger sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) are tasked with caring for their alcoholic, volatile, and violently abusive father (Jeremy Davies). It is this aspect of the film that proves the most compelling – and the most difficult to watch. When children are beaten up, it is quite bluntly violent. When one hits another in the head with a rock, blood pours from a head wound. When Finney’s father beats his sister with a leather belt, it is viscerally unpleasant to watch. None of these elements are fantastic. None of them are even exaggerated. They are, however, realistic, and no mask-wearing boogeyman or haunted telephone is ever going to match them in impact. Much of that is down to the performances of Thames and McGraw, who both do fantastic work with pretty challenging material.
It isn’t hard to notice the inversion going on here: the true horrors of The Black Phone are real and commonplace. It’s the supernatural elements – the monsters – that, ultimately, help Finney to try and save himself and grow in the process. In that respect, there is more than a little of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense to The Black Phone. It is an effective, entertaining, and a cut above the average for these kinds of stories.