The Black Phone
Horror films always seem to be at a disadvantage when it comes to being taken seriously. A lot of the derision the genre faces is earned — in some of the very worst examples, basest and exploitative schlock is often used as a substitute for narrative development, not to mention the shoestring budgets that result in a quality that is middling at best, unable to compete with the production values of many major studios. And sure, some people just don't like being scared. But you need only look at two of the most offensive Oscar snubs in recent memory (Toni Collette and Ari Aster for 2018's Hereditary, lauded by critics and audiences alike) to be reminded that the horror genre is always starting on the back foot of perceived artistic integrity.
Scott Derrickson's fiercely gripping and unexpectedly moving The Black Phone is an expertly calibrated thrill-ride that ratchets up the terror at precisely the right moments, always justifying its increasingly high stakes and pushing the suspense a few seconds past where you thought you could bear it (one masterful scene in particular is excruciatingly tense). It's also an engaging and exciting supernatural mystery that only ever shows you one card at a time until the final sequence — when the whole hand is revealed, it's a spectacularly satisfying pay-off. Most surprising of all, though, it's an affecting exploration of faith — faith in God, faith in each other and faith in ourselves. It's everything that horror-haters refuse to believe is possible.
In 1978, a local Denver community is plagued by a number of unsolved child abductions by an elusive and terrifying figure known only as "The Grabber" (Ethan Hawke). Rumours abound as to his methods and patterns, but his ruthless efficiency shows no signs of slowing. Two young siblings, the archetypal bullying victim Finney (an endearing and authentic Mason Thames — one to watch) and his potty-mouthed, precocious sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), live in increasing fear for their safety with their abusive, alcoholic father, until the narratively-required inevitable happens. Held captive in a soundproof basement, Finney reluctantly becomes resigned to his fate, until a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring. Meanwhile, Gwen experiences troubling dreams that start to feel eerily realistic.
The less you know, the better.
Based on the 2004 short story by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son, no less), Derrickson's film is a fresh upending of a number of stale horror tropes. In the very first scene, an interaction we presume will have an antagonistic outcome is instantly and craftily subverted — it genuinely caused me to exhale with relief. So, too, is the treatment of Gwen's dreams (chiefly that a police officer might actually believe her from the outset). Even the native Jump Scares are fleeting, but thunderously effective when employed (though the decibels on that sting could have been brought down a peg). I've watched enough horror films to be able to anticipate most tricks they have up their sleeves, but at no point during The Black Phone did I feel as though I had it figured out, making it one of the most genuinely riveting moviegoing experiences I've had in some time.
Derrickson wastes no time in establishing a grungy, retro tone from the first frame. The Fincher-esque title credits instantly hearken back to the iconic opening of Se7en (more recently evoked in James Wan's Malignant), an unsettling prologue to what you might have assumed was going to go easy on the brutality due to the number of kids in the cast. Not so. The film doesn't shy away from violence, inflicted both on and by children, and the sadistic malice of The Grabber (a character that might initially appear buffoonish) is never in question due to Ethan Hawke's enigmatic and deranged performance. Composer Mark Korven has also turned in career-best work, with his brooding and pulsating score a near-perfect complement to every scene.
However, the film's emotional core is both its crowning achievement and most subtle surprise. No dialogue is wasted — throwaway lines early on become catalysts for gut-punches in the film's denouement. One of Finney's mysterious phone conversations results in a heartwarming pep-talk at exactly the right moment to prepare you for the film's intense climax (though being too specific would rob it of its impact). Gwen's crudely frank but intensely relatable prayer completely reframes her entire character's purpose and caused a degree of self-reflection I wasn't expecting from a film like this. The poignancy of both scenes beautifully tempers the distress that flanks them, and the volume of the message you can hear above the carnage only serves to accentuate the magnitude of Derrickson's achievement with this film. The Black Phone's heaviness and heart go hand-in-hand — neither works without the other.
The Black Phone is in cinemas now.