You are trapped in a cell, having just been kidnapped by a mysterious, masked figure responsible for the disappearances of your classmates. A disconnected phone inexplicably rings, and you hear one of your, presumably, deceased classmates offering you advice. Do you take it?
Scott Derrickson’s latest film, The Black Phone, is not intended to offer moviegoers an experience that centres on the cheap, jump-scare filled psychological rides that many contemporary horror flicks strive to create. Its distinction from the intellectually empty camp that has dominated the genre (I am looking at you, Wolf Creek) is its saving grace, conceding that us, more evolved folk, won’t give our time and money to watching defenceless people be slaughtered in the name of “entertainment”. No, thankfully, The Black Phone is not that kind of “film.” In fact, it is not even about the mysterious antagonist that goes by the name “The Grabber,” at least not in the same vein as most slasher films are about its titular threat. The Black Phone is aptly named, since the film narrows our focus and sustains our intrigue on this black, archaic device that seems to offer our protagonist a window into the crimes of the antagonist, and even possibly a way out. But does The Black Phone manage to transcend the conventions of the mainstream horror genre that have led so many films into unwittingly committing artistic suicide?
The film begins with the necessary exposition to understand the sort of neighbourhood where our protagonist resides, and where The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has decided to inflict his terror. We follow a middle-schooler named Finney (Mason Thames) who is caught between two unsafe environments – the home where his unstable, drunk father resides, and the school where extreme child-on-child violence is rampant. Assuming that Finney is not the only child devoid of a safe space, it is no wonder The Grabber manages to so easily build his reputation; his targets are lining the streets, right where he needs them.
While the film’s acknowledgment of the kids’ struggles does well to explain how such a situation could rock a neighbourhood, I found myself raising my eyebrows a little too often for a film that we are supposed to take seriously. One of the middle-schoolers who is friends with Finney, Robin, is introduced to us in a scene where he is shown beating another student to a pulp, after knocking him out cold. In another scene, Finney and his younger sister, Gwen, are being chased by a student gang, and we see Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) resorting to bludgeoning one of them with a rock. I am not against a film showing school fights with no holds barred; the problem manifests in how Derrickson tries to depict these events whilst maintaining a certain degree of believability. We see two students get severely injured, and yet Derrickson offers us no additional scenes or dialogue demonstrating that there were any ramifications to these actions. Derrickson’s treatment of these scenes appears more in line with delivering shock value than anything else.
On the topic of believability, when Finney is kidnapped and the black phone rings for the first time, I presumed, and believed others would to, that the phone is there to torment, to trick the prisoner into thinking that there is hope, only to quash it as some sort of demented joke. Given the unsettling mix of joviality and aggression that Hawke skilfully imparts on his character, this seemed like a fair presumption. Despite this, Finney seems all too eager to play along, not once appearing to handle the phone with the same amount of caution that he does with The Grabber. And when Finney recognizes the voices on the other end of the line, all the while being aware that they are probably deceased, he does not stop to think that they could have been pre-recorded? One of the voices even talks in a loop, just one of the many moments in the film that is left unexplained.
Perhaps my issue with this dynamic can be attributed to the mood that envelops most of Finney’s interactions with the phone. It has a supernatural quality to it, contracting and expanding like it is some breathing entity, demonstrating to us that there is something moving, something alive. The Grabber seems to fear it, commanding Finney on numerous occasions to put it down, despite knowing, just as Finney does, that it is disconnected. Yet, the black phone is used by Derrickson to add to the eerie atmosphere of the cell. It startles us on numerous occasions with its unpredictable ringing, and the conversations appear to temporarily resurrect the voices of the kidnapped classmates, more times as visual terrors than as well-meaning ghosts. Ironically, the black phone leads to a greater number of jump scares than does the Grabber himself. Introducing the phone with the same sense of threat as the antagonist does not mean that it must, least of all should, remain that way for the entirety of the film. One especially moving scene, which the film desperately needed more of, involves Robin communicating to Finney through the phone and teaching him how to stand up for himself.
For an intriguing little device that at times manages to inspire hope and courage, it sure is a pity that Derrickson could not see its potential as a direct adversary to The Grabber. The black phone should have been the hero of the film, but it is instead reduced to the status of a horror movie prop.
Aside from these criticisms, it has to be said that the performances in this film are top-notch all around. So much so, that the talented and well-experienced Ethan Hawke is given a run for his money. Overall, The Black Phone is a film that has moments that solidify its reputation as being amongst the more intelligent horror flicks. Unfortunately, its misguided loyalty in the mainstream horror genre frustrates its ability to achieve greatness.
Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan.