After dodging the bullet that was Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, writer/director Scott Derrickson returned to doing his own thing his own way, and that's what The Black Phone is. A horror movie; with dark lighting and his signature uncomfortable tone. It plays out like a writing exercise for practicing setup and payoff, and I fully approve.
|Adapted by Derrickson and Robert Cargill from a short story by Joe Hill.|
The plot is set in the 70's, in an anywhere town with anybody families, where a pedophile serial killer is on the loose—Ethan Hawke, taking his usual charm and twisting it to creepy effect. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) see the missing posters, hear the news, and see empty seats appear in the school classrooms, but no one really knows what to do about it. Gwen has dreams where she can see the kidnapped kids, and she thinks they may be clues sent to her from Jesus, but their dad (Jeremy Davies, a great role for him, though not heavily featured) doesn't want her turning out like their mom who thought she was psychic but was really just crazy. He forbids her from talking about the dreams.
But then, Finney gets taken. In the basement of the Grabber's house is a phone with the cord cut. Sometimes it still rings, though. And when Finney answers it, the disembodied spirits of the Grabber's victims give him advice on how to survive; and how to escape. Each time he tries a plan and it fails, another kid calls with another plan. On the outside, Gwen dreams clues as to his whereabouts, and a detective, believing in her abilities, helps her search. You can see where this is going. It builds, and builds, and builds, and we wait for the inevitable showdown. It's simple; basic, even. And I suppose that might be a criticism in some eyes, but not to me.
|I think the best, most thrilling horror movies are the simple ones. Simple can be hard to pull off.|
It impresses me when a movie shows me what it's doing and yet I'm still anxiously hoping I haven't been tricked when those last twists and turns come down the pike. We're made to think we are in the know about everything, but we aren't really—and once we're wrong once, then comes the thrill of worry that we're wrong about everything. Derrickson isn't making high art here, but he has respect for his craft and knows what's winning about his genre. So he packs his work full of horror thrills. Extreme situations, menacing villains, dread, suspense; the dark, twisted implications left just unsaid, weak protagonists who find strength, and even casual musings on spiritual elements.
The only thing that's "missing" is gore, or reveling in violence, and that makes me like it even more. It may not be high art but it's tasteful. And thoughtful. You get the sense that it spurs from the uncomfortable fears and nightmares of its creators, rather than a lazy penchant for jump-scares and splashing blood. The supernatural brings a handful of frightening moments, but unlike most supernatural horror, the supernatural here is a force for good. Gwen's down-to-earth faith in Jesus is mixed in and at home with the more typical supernatural horror elements of ghosts and psychicism.
|If you like to mull over on movies, this one isn't lacking there either, though it doesn't demand it|
What underlying beliefs or fears inspired the plot can be interesting, but the main appeal lies, simply, in the plot itself. It's sharp structure, classic themes, efficient pacing, and ever-patient planning. Plus characters to root for, be sad for, see change, or just plain despise—all packed together in a premise and tone that unnerves, unsettles, and thrills. The performances are roundly good, and the production quality high, but the strength of writing is what brings the winning concept home. The Black Phone is a simple, focused effort of pure entertainment.