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The Black Phone is a minimalist horror that finds strength by keeping its distance

The Black Phone

The Black Phone screening provided by Universal Pictures

“…injects enough fear to keep audiences squirmish, while keeping a level of reservation to proceedings without overstaying its welcome”

Blumhouse has been churning out the best horror films in recent times. From academy award winner Get Out (2017) to the eerie Invisible Man (2020) and classics like Paranormal Activity (2007) — there’s been no shortage of the original and frightening. In contrast to those past Blumhouse films, Scott Derrickson’s latest horror/thriller, The Black Phone (2021), is a much more minimalist effort that injects enough fear to keep audiences squirmish, while keeping a level of reservation to proceedings without overstaying its welcome.

Adapted from Joe Hill’s (Stephen King’s son) short story of the same name, The Black Phone is set in the backdrop of a Colorado town in the 70s and follows Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), a timid and smart young boy who is abducted by the towns kid-abductor, nicknamed “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke). The premise for the film is quite a simple one and sees Derrickson lean on familiar horror tropes (masked killer, supernatural forces) while still managing to keep the film feeling fresh and interesting.

Derrickson’s last real venture into the horrific was Sinister (2012), a film very much set on delivering the graphic and gruesome. In The Black Phone, however, Derrickson creates fear by keeping a distance in a way that other horrors tend not to. The film revolves, for the most part, around a soundproof basement that is comprised of a toilet, mattress, small window, and the titular black phone. It’s less about waiting for a jump-scare to pop its head out than it is about Finney popping his head in and confronting his fears where previously he might not have.

(from left) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

(from left) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

It’s an interesting approach from Derrickson as it forces our protagonist to stand up for himself or risk facing the fate of the children before him. The Grabber keeps his distance and only engages when the abductee plays his game of “naughty boy” by trying to escape, so the horror that awaits is very much known and it is up to Finney to figure out the best way to tackle it.

This is where the black phone comes into play. It’s the anchor that needs to work (both literally and figuratively) in order for the film to work, and for the most part it does. As a plot device, it serves to guide Finney through this escape-room-situation; The Grabber can’t hear it ringing —claiming that it hasn’t worked since he was a kid— but Finney can, and when he answers it, the voices of the past victims speak and help Finney find a way out.

On the flip side is Finney’s sister, Gwen (a brilliant Madeleine McGraw) who, like Finney, endures the abusive rage of her father, but has enough courage to bite back and stand up for herself where she can. Unlike Finney though, she has a clairvoyant power that allows her to have random dreams surrounding The Grabber and his victims. It’s partly why Finney is able to hear the phone ringing, and while this supernatural aspect is never really explored beyond it simply existing, it’s what binds the two characters to one another.

In this sense, The Black Phone is much more concerned with how the young characters overcome adversity and grow by learning to stand up for themselves, than it is about gore and violence. Ethan Hawke is still terrifying as The Grabber due to just how little time we spend with him as he’s always in the back of your mind, but he never takes away from the crux of the story. The eeriness that Derrickson injects through the black phone (the victims voices, while serving as a guide, are still haunting) and the graininess of Brett Jutkiewicz’s cinematography, also maintain the unsettling feel that audiences may want.

The Black Phone opens nationally from the 21st of July, 2022. 


Arnel Duracak

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