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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

‘The Black Phone’ (2021): Your Call is Important to Us

Directed by: Scott Derrickson || Produced by: Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill

Screenplay by: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill || Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke

Music by: Mark Korven || Cinematography: Brett Jutkiewicz || Edited by: Frédéric Thoraval || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 103 minutes

I came of age in the 2000s-2010s, a period when horror filmmaking fluctuated between torture porn (e.g. Saw [2004-2021], Hostel [2005, 2007, 2011]), found-footage crap descended from The Blair Witch Project (1999, Paranormal Activity [2007-2015], Rec [2007, 2009], et al.), and various demonic possession-knockoffs of The Exorcist (1973, see also: The Conjuring [2013, 2016, 2021] films). That latter category included most of writer-director Scott Derrickson’s early works (e.g. The Exorcism of Emily Rose [2005], Sinister [2012], Deliver Us from Evil [2014]), most of which seemed generic based on their marketing and received mediocre to bad reviews, so I never gave what seemed like another director-for-hire’s work the time of day until his biggest Hollywood payday, Doctor Strange [2016], debuted for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-2019). Films like Doctor Strange or Ant-Man (2015) — or the Thor (2011, 2013, 2017) movies or Iron Man (2010, 2013) sequels — felt like the dictionary definitions of bland yet inoffensive blockbuster entertainment that Hollywood has produced in one form or another like clockwork since Star Wars (1977), big-budget, digital FX extravaganza versions of that generic, uninspired Hollywood horror slop I mentioned earlier.

Top: Mason Thames (left) first encounters The Grabber (Ethan Hawke, right) as a jovial magician at the end of The Black Phone’s first act. Bottom: Thames must learn to use the titular phone to help him escape as he communes with The Grabber’s past victims.

Color me surprised, then, when Derrickson became the latest in a long line of filmmakers to abandon the director’s chair for an MCU installment after he parted ways with Marvel and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022, later directed by Scott Raimi) over “creative differences,” which, as Jay Bauman of Red Letter Media remarked, is Marvel-speak for “he wanted to make a real movie.” That “real movie” turned out to be The Black Phone, an adaptation of the Joe Hill short story of the same name (2005) and a sort of return to Derrickson’s low(er)-budget horror roots, where a child abductor and serial killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke, cast against type) terrorizes a Denver suburb in the late 1970s.

Another production from the house that Jason Blum built, which has more or less monopolized contemporary mainstream horror in Hollywood, The Black Phone represents a massive creative step forward for Derrickson relative to his hired gun-work for Walt Disney and previous cliché-ridden scary movies. It’s a period-piece that doesn’t let its cultural background overwhelm its story (e.g. Stranger Things [2016-]), a horror picture that doesn’t shy away from child murder without growing exploitative, and a hybridized, sort of supernatural thriller that mixes just enough fantastical elements to complicate its plot without breaking the film’s diegetic rules or robbing its characters of agency. To cut to the chase, The Black Phone revolves around the abduction of a teenaged protagonist (a great child-performance by Mason Thames) by the aforementioned Grabber, who locks Thames in a soundproof basement with the eponymous landline that allows Thames to communicate with The Grabber’s now deceased former victims. A further plot twist involves Thames’ sister, Madeleine McGraw, whose genetic predisposition to psychic communication allows her to both anticipate future events and also interact with children killed by Hawke.

All of these supernatural flourishes to The Black Phone’s narrative are just that, stylistic flourishes that enhance rather than dominate this otherwise straightforward, effective thriller that has as much in common with Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997) or In the Tall Grass (2019) as it does with The Call (2020). What sets The Black Phone apart from other films about kidnappers, serial killers, or victims solving problems to escape their intricate diegetic mazes is its attention to character detail, the sheer length of time (an entire act of the story) it dedicates to establishing its main players prior to Thames’ capture. The first third of the film describes the strengths, weaknesses, and personality of Thames, McGraw, and their greater community, as well as the modus operandi of Hawke’s villain before the movie transitions into its escape room-esque format. Every one of the minor characters, personality ticks, and environmental details established in the opening act pays off throughout Acts Two and Three, though some are more worthwhile than others (see below).

In terms of direction, Derrickson utilizes a combination of ARRI Alexa digital camerawork and 8mm film sources to switch between primary storyline and psychic dream sequences, respectively, though I don’t recall any elongated tracking shots or showy camerawork besides some creative framing to emphasize Hawke’s creepy, brooding personality here and there. The most arresting visuals of the movie are more a function of the props department (e.g. Hawke’s numerous spooky masks) and the special FX (e.g. the ghosts of The Grabber’s previous victims) than either Brett Jutkiewicz’s cinematography or Derrickson’s overall visual direction.

Madeleine McGraw’s (left) psychic powers are integral to the story of The Black Phone.

Top to bottom, then, The Black Phone represents more of a storytelling and acting direction advancement for Scott Derrickson than a cinematographic one; its screenplay, minus a few throwaway roles like James Ransone, is almost airtight in its efficiency at a lean 103 minutes, while Derrickson’s camerawork is most notable for its deference to other, better aspects of this movie’s production. Little in this movie will blow your socks off, to be sure, as The Black Phone’s most imaginative features are minor fantasy hybridizations to this otherwise traditionalist serial murder-thriller, but its almost Spielbergian affection for its central characters give this horror story heart where so many other members of the genre rest on cheap scares, forgettable gore, or handheld camera gimmicks. The Black Phone will remind you that heart matters in filmmaking as much as it does in a schoolyard fistfight.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Thank God for creative differences with major studio executives, because Scott Derrickson’s latest is superior to both his blockbuster work (e.g. Doctor Strange, The Day the Earth Stood Still [2008]) as well as his earlier horror projects. It’s not the scariest picture in the world, but with creepy supernatural twists to storytelling conventions and patient characterizations, The Black Phone gets the most from its charismatic, dare I say unique premise.

However… the breadth of the film’s supporting cast feels so broad as to better fit a television series than a feature-film, while Derrickson shows his limits as a visual director even in a project where he appears to have complete creative control.

—> RECOMMENDED

? What was the psychological justification for The Grabber not wanting his victims to see his true face?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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