The Black Phone – Dir: Scott Derrickson (Film Review)

The Black Phone is a wonderfully crafted supernatural horror from director Scott Derrickson, with outstanding performances amplifying the intense dread and mystery on display.

Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies

I’ve had my eye on The Black Phone for a while now; it’s a horror movie with a decent budget and a great cast, the source material is solid, but the first trailer felt over-ambitious and disconnected, almost giving too little away beyond the potential for a grim fever dream of 8mm and Red Dragon, directed by Scott Derrickson as a way of ‘angrily returning to my roots after leaving Marvel’.

I was delighted to find out I couldn’t have been more wrong, that Scott Derrickson brings everything he gave us in Sinister that made that film near-perfect, and that The Black Phone is immediately worthy of carving its own sadistic spot amongst those established and influential films. The trailer itself was perfectly representative of the film – not in the negatives but in that the film’s strengths lie in its commitment to tense, disconcerting mystery.

The film opens by introducing us to Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw), a yin-yang brother-sister duo who provide exposition for the film’s core narrative  of growing up in Denver in 1978 and surrounded by various forms of hell, and whose performances set the tone for the film itself.

Thames and McGraw are both brilliant from their first moments on screen, and the quality and consistency of performance from child actors is always a risk when the success or seriousness of a film hinges on them. The casting and performance of all the younger actors in this film are perfectly unique, with every character bringing something distinctly memorable to create a cohesive fictional world.

The standout here is Madeleine McGraw as Finney’s sister, Gwen, who just dominates every single scene she enters with the grace and ease of an actor four or five times her age. Gwen has the personality of Sergeant Dignam from The Departed and the impulsive ferocity of Hit Girl from KickAss which are both used to create standout moments that drive the energy of the film forward.

It’s also a performance of great depth, of real pain and anguish, and all of this is presented on screen in its most raw and unflinching; for all its authentic early-year awkwardness and confidence combined, it’s nothing less than a perfect performance for what the film asks of it.

This is nothing strange to the world of The Black Phone, a story that focuses on a child abductor known as The Grabber who has been targeting the children at Finney and Gwen’s school. The children’s home life is equally horrifying; their father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) has replaced his widowed wife with cripplingly abusive alcohol addiction, and projects his pain onto his children with unrelenting brutality and violence.

The film doesn’t shy away from this, and actively forces it on the viewer, simulating the inescapable, unsettling nature of what we’re seeing the characters experience on screen. This approach to uncensored and accentuated intensity to violence and bluntness is a core part of what makes the film so successful at maintaining the interest and attention of its audience. You know what to expect, but the delivery is so authentic and raw that it still impacts the viewer regardless of their anticipation.

With the foundation of the story established, the second and third acts of the film focus on the brother-sister connection and The Grabber, and the less you know about this before seeing the film, the better. This isn’t a film that heavily relies on twists or turns, but reveals its narrative and story layer by layer until the tension is almost tangible.

At the centre of this, and not without his own dedicated mention, is Ethan Hawke, who hides his celebrity behind a collection of terrifying, interchangeable comedy-and-tragedy masks to portray an unhinged, intensely focused and deeply unpredictable character.

There are moments of familiar influence in The Grabber, but Hawke makes the character uniquely disturbing by his ability to master and project emotion and energy with his presence and body language; whether playful or seething, he personifies a monster constantly on the verge of exploding true and pure hell into the world.

All of this would be great on its own, making for a film that could easily grow into a cult classic with a following over time that reignites interest and discussion, but The Black Phone also just manages to be fantastic, genre-faithful entertainment as a horror-thriller.

There are cool, aesthetically nostalgic moments littered throughout, a handful of excellent jumpscares, clearly established but mysterious supernatural elements, and a consistency in giving the viewer something different, something familiar but new, something unique, for better or for worse.

The Black Phone is a film that will have you discussing certain elements consistently placed throughout and their significance, allowing you to expand on your interest in the film and search for deeper meaning rather than create new ways to maintain it or justify it afterward. The Black Phone is a film I dread to watch again for all the right reasons, and I’m not at all ashamed to say I’m more looking forward to my second viewing than I was my first.

Oxford Lamoureaux