In a sea of IP-mined films and television shows, it is refreshing to have original content at our disposal. You might argue that every piece of content is original. It does take creative people to take an outline, expand it into the appropriate format, and actors with their takes. Yet, an original story bodes far more risk than IP; it requires the audience to accept your movie at its face value. Releasing a horror film in summer is a riskier venture. Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone has all the ingredients to please horror and thriller fans alike.
For starters, The Black Phone is not “elevated horror.” The screenplay by Derrickson (Doctor Strange) and C. Robert Cargill, based on Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, is very straightforward and emphasizes character.
The story’s strength is in its time and place as a sleepy Colorado suburb is awakened by news of a serial kidnapper having abducted five children. Police don’t have leads as to the missing kid’s whereabouts. Mason Thames’ Finney Shaw has a good head on his shoulders, yet something is holding him back. Thames’ performance engenders our empathy as he deals with bullies at school, a fear of meeting girls, and struggles at home. His sister, Gwen (Madeline McGraw), is more even-tempered. She is less fearful of her surroundings but accepts the unfolding situation in her community.
“The Grabber,” as he is come to be known, is played by Ethan Hawke in an inspired performance. Hawke, brandishing long hair and a mask, drives a black van. He eventually captures Finney.
There are two sides to The Black Phone’s story. The first deals with Finney’s abduction and the ensuing cat and mouse game that “The Grabber” is interested in playing. Derrickson and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz have a tight space to work with; the cinderblock adorning the basement where Finney is held claustrophobic at best, the worn walls and a single window provides light. The room is airtight when the door is closed, and other than a black phone, there appears to be no way for Finney to escape. Derrickson taunts the audience with a battle of the minds between Finney, who is stronger than he realizes, and “The Grabber,” who thinks he has a choice abduction.
As “The Grabber,” Hawke is inspired by utilizing an understated performance that reeks of having the upper hand. The actor was initially against playing a villain; however, the archetype suits him, exemplified in his brilliant First Reformed performance; here, he wears a physical mask, obscuring his features, making him far more menacing. The actor’s voice conveys his demands. In First Reformed, he wore a mask of a different kind. Both characters face a consumption of their souls at the behest of their calling. Both are antagonists rather than villains, a credit to Hawke’s understanding of the individual roles. The difference is in the implied villainy inherent in “The Grabber.”
Driving Finney, and by extension Gwen, is their home life. Their father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), is a factory worker who is more interested in his kids’ obedience than their well-being. Gwen, who has psychic dreams, endures the type of anger and rage Terrence is capable.
Derrickson’s and Cargill’s attention to the characters pays dividends as each horrific action follows a consequence. Finney is not as isolated as he thinks, and I’ll admit to being surprised as the story progresses. He is more frightened than anything, conveying how his abduction mirrors his home life.
The Black Phone is a horror story first. Within that context is Finney’s coming-of-age story. Thames gives a wonderfully nuanced and terrified performance throughout the ordeal, as the phone and the voices behind it offer the courage, conviction, and support Finney needs to stand his ground. Finney, as with all of the story’s characters, has an innocence about them, some youthful, others out of spite or choice.
Gwen, who is emotionally hardened against their father, has a clairvoyance about her as she begins to learn more details about Finney’s whereabouts, pulling a lighter, more frightening version of telekinesis between Tony and Tia from Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain.
That comparison might be a stretch. However, by centering on the characters, Derrickson presents much more than a standard, run-of-the-mill horror story. Finney and Gwen are already far more mature than their ages would have you believe, offering ingredients for them to grow, the story’s greatest strength.
I’ll admit to projecting the story and character actions, especially concerning Terrence. Derrickson and Cargill pulled a few rabbit tricks that gave me the feeling that Terrence was a different character than I was expecting. Davies is a bit of a chameleon in the roles that he chooses. My projection didn’t pan out, and as I thought more about The Black Phone, the more I appreciated Davies’ performance and how the character drives the story.
Driven as a character study, The Black Phone is a well-positioned risk. Times were different, and the innocence of youth against the hardships of taking on life at that age had me thinking very positively days after the house lights came up.
The Black Phone
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, based on The Black Phone by Joe Hill
Starring Mason Thames, Madeline McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransome, Ethan Hawke
R, 102 mins, Universal/Blumhouse