Hollywood has a way of making or breaking career trajectories. Especially if the subject causes their own sabotage by way of unlucky moves. Last we had seen of writer/director Scott Derrickson, he was in his own development hell building the skeleton that would eventually be the direct sequel to his most mainstream film, the Marvel entry Doctor Strange. After bowing out due to creative differences, and once the pandemic subsided enough to where he sit behind cameras again, it was as good a time as any to slip back into his mid-budget, high concept horror motifs again. When every ounce of its momentum works for its potential, The Black Phone is an impossibly tortuous, winsome slice of suspense. And even I had not expected it to stick the landing so effortlessly, going in very blind.
Adapting from a short story by author Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill do see the basis of their project as clear-cut as anyone. And yet, their methods to evolving this macabre abduction tale for feature-length means give off the idea they’re building something from scratch, in the famed master’s eerie vibe. Not so much to the letter, but no less gritty and unnerving. And all under the shadows of an otherwise peaceful suburb.
Set in 1978, the suburban sprawl of North Denver had seen its share of peaceful days. That is, until a nefarious creep known simply as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) is targeted with kidnapping middle schoolers. Insecure little leaguer Phinney Shaw (Mason Thames) is the sixth victim, snatched by the reclusive baddie and trapped in a basement lingering with the blood of prior dupes. And their disembodied voices, calling Phinney one by one for pointers to not make similar mistakes on a phone claimed to have no reception, but is clear as a bell.
As if he didn’t already face enough turmoil at home and school, picked on constantly by bullies, and whiplashed by his drunkard father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). He and sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) stick to one another for security, building each other’s defenses. Their coping strategies can only assist them so much when only Gwen’s still standing. A little sis who must rely on the vividness of her dreams, overwhelmed at first by their meaning, to solve the bizarre cover up at hand. While also struggling to reel in her own flighty tendencies, quite a few to be found.
If Derrickson could only latch onto one element, run with it, and make everything else in his visual portrait take a step back, it might be his grasp on emotional complexity. He has that carried in a dense saddlebag, inundating each character with their unique form of baggage. The stereotype does ring true, middle school is a slog. Worse off with a mysterious kidnapper on the loose, maintaining a low profile when in public. The first we see of Hawke as The Grabber (roughly 20 minutes in), his manner of unstable menace is instantaneous in effect, wearing a magician’s top hat, and an array of stylish masks (co-designed with subtle flair by Tom Savini). No one actor could try such a deranged criminal lightly, Hawke’s deepest psyche forever altered by the experience. For his fleeting screen time, it’s a chilling presence nobody would expect from an otherwise placid, cocky actor versed in most genres.
And that much makes Phinney’s already weary mind, exhausted in mourning the loss of his mother, far more susceptible to collapse. He just wants something to go right, be it grades, a science class crush, or further wins on the diamond. His closest friend Robin (a delightfully brash Miguel Cazarez Mora), wants him to think smarter, play tougher, be willing to fight his own battles when they emerge. Even that is asking for much, however, as Phinney wades very tense waters. Only when trapped in the Grabber’s clutches does the need to fight back kick in.
How Derrickson layers every clue is simplistic genius, mirroring Hill’s written beats with an effective grip on both tone and misdirection. Atmospherics do plenty to elevate the potboiler-style intensity, and the risk for a migraine. Namely Mark Korven’s (The Lighthouse) instrumentation and Paul Hackner’s (The Forever Purge) serrated sound mix, both working in tandem to leave the viewer guessing. Perhaps more determined than the film’s grown up cast. If there were any wrinkles to the director’s methodical approach, it could be the adults involved were written not to take it seriously. Yes, a pair of big city detectives are assigned to the case, working with little substantial evidence. While an eloquent drug head named Max (a chipper James Ransone) treats every element like a farcical conspiracy. Even Davies looks nothing short of tired in overselling the burned-out alkie look. They all feign a considerable grasp, only to be outpaced by the real leads.
Both Thames and McGraw are absolute crackerjack in their roles. One building their perceptibility on the fly amid high stress, the other refining her psychic ability and profane attitude to close the book. In no short order, McGraw’s performance, her mental acuity left me spellbound. To involve oneself in a film with heavy subject matter requires a heightened focus. It might be easier for an established vet like Hawke, channeling Lon Chaney at his most twisted. McGraw, in her most empathic performance to date, only needs words on the page to channel defiance, anger, and familial conviction to pair with her character’s ESP. With only the smallest dose of motivation, she steals the show.
Bordering on It-level playfulness with an acerbic solemnity familiar in suspense, The Black Phone sees a genuine avenue in returning to a familiar sweet spot. One where the sight of gore is casually exchanged for unbridled tension and character development. While the latter can’t ring true for many of the faces in play, those in front do shine with honesty for both moment and mood. This exercise might not scratch everyone’s itch for a dated summer horror reminiscent of its own source material. And thirty pages echoing a writing family’s notable dynasty may not seem like much by itself. In Derrickson and Cargill’s hands, broadening the work as they went, what they had was enough to ignite a fiery catalyst. The kind to illustrate both initiative and resilience, from start to finish, perhaps for more than one watch. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Black Phone opens in theaters June 24; rated R for some drug use, bloody images, violence and language; 103 minutes.