The new film from the creator of ‘Sinister’ is a gripping tale about the end of innocence and the awareness that monsters do in fact exist
Scott Derrickson made his feature-length directorial debut with Hellraiser: Inferno, which at least wasn’t the worst of the installments in the Hellraiser series. He then went on to direct that long since forgotten remake of the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. With The Exorcism of Emily Rose came the first serious indications of his talent and ability to take a classic horror movie and turn it on its head. But it was Sinister that definitively put him on the map. The film is a hair-raising journey through the machinations of the genre, a stripping away of its usual perspective, and an example of how to harness the disturbing things that can arise even in a mundane domestic setting. It’s a style Derrickson has pretty much stuck to ever since, expressed in eerie atmospheres, hidden worlds and unusual perspectives. He did it in Doctor Strange, surely one of Marvel’s most auteur films; also with Deliver Us From Evil, a return to demonic possessions along with elements of Seven; and now with The Black Phone, one of the genre’s most unique deliveries of late.
It is, it seems, a new hybrid very typical of this director – one of psychological thriller, ghost story and an intergenerational storyline. It tells the story of a spooky murderer in the late 1970s who kidnaps teenagers, along with the harrowing quest by one of them to escape the beast’s lair. Help will come from an unexpected avenue – the previous victims, communicating with him via a broken telephone in the basement where he is being held captive. But brilliantly breaking the usual rules of the game, The Black Phone transcends all its forerunners, artfully weaving together different strands of the narrative and engaging the viewer in a reflection on the end of innocence, the realization that monsters really do exist, and the cracks in the path leading from infancy to adulthood.
Derrickson takes a sizable risk, because any film that wants to cover so much ground runs the risk of being spread too thin. But he manages to pull it off by keeping a respectful eye on his mentors while also knowing how to explore new territory. Thus, The Black Phone has echoes of works such as “A Stir of Echoes” by Richard Matheson (the cinema adaption, Stir of Echoes,was very well done, incidentally) and his own Sinister, with which it shares a liking for playing with shadow as an integral element of the background. An example is the dazzling scene in which a flashback turns out to be both a nightmare premonition and the logical explanation of supernatural communication. But his real triumph is the sensation that the film goes beyond Derrickson’s own conventions to deepen into a new dialect allowing seemingly conflicting concepts to combine synergistically.
Take how he harnesses the smallest details of staging (the belt, the mask, the telephone) to maximum impact in the narrative, and the unusual sensitivity with which he addresses the concept of fear. Yes, there’s the fear we have as we grow up, but also the one we have as adults when the myriad possibilities a child sees are revealed to us. In this sense, the key to the film is that it transmits emotion in an authentic and unforced way, as manifested in the relationship between the superb siblings, who will come to resolve the rivalries inherent in the coming of age. It is also a very effective exercise in suspense and terror, with indelible scenes (thanks in large part to a fantastic Ethan Hawke) and very well calibrated scares. Some may see it as a flaw, but one of the strengths of The Black Phone is that it doesn’t even try to tie up all the loose ends, nor to lay the foundations of a mythology favoring future expansion. It’s as simple as it is effective, like a special edition of The Twilight Zone.