After stepping away from Marvel’s Dr Strange franchise, director Scott Derrickson turns his attention to something entirely different. The Black Phone is a smaller scale project, filmed during lockdown, and is all the more powerful for its tight focus. Derrickson’s screenplay is based on a short story by Joe Hill. Set in Colorado in the 1970s, the grubby, hardscrabble lifestyle of the community in which the story unfolds is convincingly evoked through Brett Jutkiewicz’s stylised cinematography. Be warned, this is a visceral, uncompromising tale that’s not for the faint-hearted.
Finney (Mason Thames) is a teenage boy, struggling to come to terms with a high school that’s dominated by punch-happy alpha males, while simultaneously suffering the brutal ministrations of his alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davis), who has never properly recovered from his wife’s suicide. Finney’s younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), also comes in for beatings from Terrence and is prone to having mysterious dreams, which seem to offer clues to the identity of ‘The Grabber,’ a local boogie man who has been kidnapping young boys from the area over a long period.
No trace of his victims has ever been found.
And then, inevitably, Finney himself falls prey to The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and finds himself locked up in a dingy basement, awaiting an unknown fate. On the wall beside his mattress is the titular phone. It’s out of use, the wire cut through and yet it has an unnerving tendency to ring from time to time – and whenever he answers, Finney finds that the voices on the other end of the line are eerily familiar…
It would be impossible to relate more of the plot without giving away massive spoilers, but suffice to say this is a tale of survival, where Finney must pit his wits against his captor. Derrickson has the good sense to devote plenty of time to character development before the abduction occurs, which means I’m already rooting for Finney and Gwen by the time it happens – and it also helps that the two young leads are so appealing. Hawke submits an uncannily powerful performance as the villain, considering he spends most of the film half-hidden by a series of bizarre face masks. The sense of dread throughout the story is palpable. The jump-cut is a regular narrative device in this kind of film, but there are some here that are so impeccably timed they have me almost out of my seat on a couple of occasions.
The overall atmosphere is enhanced by a kicking 70s soundtrack and I’m particularly impressed by a lengthy sequence based around Pink Floyd’s On the Run – I suspect that Derrickson has been waiting a very long time for the opportunity to deploy it, but for me it’s one of the film’s high points.
This won’t be to everyone’s taste. Those who deplore screen violence will be sorely tested by many of the scenes unflinchingly depicted here, but if nothing else, The Black Phone offers an encouraging escape from the slice-and-dice mundanity that has dominated the horror genre for far too long.
My advice? Buckle in and give it a whirl.