In a world of cookie-cutter horror tropes, finding a movie that defies the clichés can be a rarity. We’ve reached a point where fake blood and jumpscares just aren’t enough anymore, and audiences are craving new, more complex ways of being spooked from the safety of their couch. And with The Black Phone, Director and Co-writer, Scott Derrickson, sets out to do just that.
Set in the 1970s in a neighbourhood in Denver, The Black Phone is based on a short story of the same name by horror Writer, Joe Hill, son of the spooky king himself, Stephen King. One moment, 13-year-old Finney Shaw is walking home from school on a day like any other, the next, he finds himself being forced into the back of a van and detained in the soundproofed basement of his captor – the next in a long line of recent child abductions within the area. However, when the disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, Finney discovers that he can use it to contact his kidnapper’s previous victims, all of whom are determined to one-up their murderer by helping Finney find a way out.
Now, I know we were just talking about cookie-cutter horror films and off the back of that, this concept might sound a bit basic. But Scott Derrickson, his creative team, and the incredible cast of actors really pull it off. Not only does The Black Phone feel fresh, but it feels like something truly special.
Right from the opening credits, your attention is grabbed by the film’s vintage aesthetic and the thick overlay of sinister atmosphere provided by Brett Jutkiewicz’s evocative cinematography. Imagine if someone tried to imitate the infamous ‘death video’ from The Ring using vintage news clippings and missing person flyers. It’s eerie editing like this that sets the tone of the movie right from the word go.
But one of the main things that makes this movie work so well is the meticulous attention to detail. Co-written between Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, the first act focuses entirely on character building, establishing the characters, the setting and relationship dynamics. From the start, Derrickson and Cargill set to work, leaving a long trail of breadcrumbs which, if paid attention to, lead to a plethora of deeply satisfying ‘aha!’ moments later on in the film. Not only that, focusing the first leg of the movie entirely on character voices really makes you root for them. This makes a massive difference in horror movies when it comes to packing a proper punch, and it’s something I wish the genre would do more of.
And speaking of characters, for a cast composed primarily of child actors, they all did a phenomenal job! Being among the most traumatising crimes in existence for both victims and loved ones, child abduction and murder is a painfully sensitive subject to tackle. Every youngster in The Black Phone’s ensemble did an incredible job portraying the agonising pain that crimes such as these elicit. My heart ached for every single one of them, from the two leading characters, Finney Shaw ( Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw ( Madeleine McGraw), right down to supporting characters with less than five to ten minutes of screentime. Some honourable mentions go to Brady Hepner as Vance Hopper, Miguel Cazarez Mora as Robin, and Jacob Moran as Billy.
And, of course, we do have to mention Ethan Hawke. I won’t talk too much about his performance in the interest of keeping the fright factor intact, but I can confidently assure you that he was, indeed, bloody terrifying.
Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone is special in that it isn’t just another pointless splatter movie. Notably lacking in the gratuitous gore you’d expect to see in the average horror film, its use of vivid violence is very sparing. Instead of relying solely on the shock factor, this movie takes its time, allowing the concept’s reality to speak for itself. And genuinely caring whether or not Finney made it out alive ramps up the tension tenfold, tugging The Black Phone over the ‘good horror’ boundary and into the realms of great horror. This all makes for a much more impactful pay-off.
The ‘hard to watch’ moments come as a result of emotional impact, as opposed to sheer visceral disgust. Rather than leaving the theatre feeling queasy and superficially disturbed, you instead feel the cold sensation of a much more grounded message slowly sinking in, and that’s what makes it truly memorable.
Have you seen The Black Phone? Do you find that it packed a punch? Or maybe it just didn’t do it for you? Either way, we’d love to know why! Let us know in the comment section below, or drop a post on the Wild River Comics Discussion Club.
If you or anyone you know has been affected by the issues raised in The Black Phone, support is available at ,,Missing People. Click the link to be directed to their website, or call their support line on 116 000
You are not alone.
For those who are able to, you can also consider donating to ,,Victim Support, a non-profit organisation that provides help to those who have recently lost a family member or loved one to murder or manslaughter.
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