Scott Derrickson almost directed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but left the project over “creative differences,” leading Sam Raimi to take over the franchise. While that may seem like a bit of a career setback for Derrickson, losing out on another Marvel bag after directing one of the better films in the MCU, doing so led him to The Black Phone, and after seeing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it feels like the sort of bullet-dodging that only can come with the gift of prophecy. Sought by Marvel for his horror-focused touch seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil, and the smash Blumhouse hit Sinister, Derrickson’s prodigal return to Blumhouse in the wake of his Marvel departure is such a welcome turn of events for horror hounds such as myself.
In the northern suburbs of 1978 Denver, a community has become ravaged by a string of disappearances of young boys. With no leads or developing information surrounding the locations of the abducted beyond the presence of black balloons at each abduction site, a town begins to live in fear for their boys being taken by “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke). Finney Blake (Mason Thames), a 13-year-old neighborhood boy, upon being violently attacked by a seemingly harmless man struggling with groceries, finds himself trapped in the basement of The Grabber, forced to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the masked sociopath. As his options wear thin and his hope of escape begins to wane, Finney receives a call on a disconnected wall phone located in his prison cell and finds himself being able to communicate with the lost spirits of the Grabber’s previous victims. Using their own experiences which led to their dooms, Finney builds his plan to escape from his would-be tomb. Meanwhile, Finney’s psychic sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), calls upon her often sporadic powers to help the police locate her missing brother.
The Black Phone, based on Joe Hill’s short story included in his 20th Century Ghosts, has all the style and atmosphere one could expect from someone with the DNA of Stephen King coursing through their veins. Unlike a certain Netflix series popular for its depiction of a decade gone by, there’s a less pompous ease to The Black Phone’s depiction of 1970s suburbia. Derrickson nails the mid-century, bland vibe of the world without having to constantly inundate you with pop culture references to remind you that this is not a present-day story. While that seems like something that should be easy to pull off, it’s something that’s becoming rarer to find done subtly.
Hawke, having never really been given the chance to really go full-tilt psycho before, takes every second of his time on screen to create a character so veritably chilling, but also weirdly rambunctious, that I couldn’t help but smile at just how much fun he’s having with what could’ve been such a depressingly depraved character. It’s John Wayne Gacy by way of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, and it’s glorious to watch. However, it’s McGraw, whose B-plot (which sounds stupid on paper, but surprisingly works), is the true MVP of The Black Phone, mixing in both an emotional core, as well as a deeply needed comedic relief that never feels at the detriment of the darker A-plot. She’s a star.
And this movie, despite not being overly assaultive with it, is scary as hell. The addition of the supernatural elements to the film brought the tension to that ever-so-slight “I guess anything can happen” sense of expectation with how the film would unfold, as opposed to playing itself as a straight-up kidnapping thriller. It didn’t do too much to ruin the true crime-esque essence of the film, but it certainly added a layer of suspense that couldn’t have been possible without it. The Black Phone also features what is perhaps the best jumpscare I’ve experienced in a film in years, coming so far into a film that sought not to utilize them, sneaking one in there, let alone one as effective as what was done, was perfectly executed and should be studied for every other cheap ass jumpscare-laden studio horror that comes after this.
And thank god, the children in this movie are actually given some depth and respect from Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, actually giving them the benefit of the doubt of their intelligence and the wherewithal of survival in a world so seemingly dead set on hurting them. This gives Thames and McGraw, among others, a wonderful base to work with that doesn’t succumb to the typical “kids ruin movies” sentiment that can come from filmmakers with less respect for its audience and actors.
There’s a Twilight Zone-esque nature to The Black Phone, but without the “gotcha!” elements that can often make such setups feel more gimmicky than anything else. Its supernatural take is a subtle twist on what could’ve been a very effective, but far more straightforward story of stranger danger. It gives that lovely little Joe Hill puff of life into films we’ve seen many times before, and leaves the audience with a sense of unease that wouldn’t be possible without it. Hawke is having 10 tons of fun being a completely deranged kid killer, and its child cast shines thanks to a lovely attention to detail and trust from Derrickson and Co.. The Black Phone is a film that, while not sexy on paper or marketing, takes a simple concept and injects a macabre, but also very tender, energy to it.
And on top of that, Derrickson got to make this film, and not another Doctor Strange. Win-win all around.
In theaters June 24th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The Black Phone website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.