As evidenced by Sinister and now The Black Phone, Scott Derrickson dreams his nightmares in Super 8, a grainy format that functions as the filter for his anxieties about child abduction, abuse, and murder. So too does his film’s feisty heroine Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), a 1978 pre-teen in a quiet North Denver suburb whose slumbering visions of unthinkable crimes materialize via Derrickson’s favorite scratchy aesthetic, suggesting—as does a reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—the director’s formative association of aged celluloid and traumatic terror. More general still, though, it speaks to Derrickson’s fixation on the past as a source of perpetual malevolence—a notion at the corroded heart of his latest, which concerns a world awash in brutality and danger, a young boy’s fight for survival, and a predator of iconic villainy.
Debuting in theaters on June 24 following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, The Black Phone reteams Derrickson with his Sinister leading man Ethan Hawke. That’s not, however, the only connection between this and his prior genre gem. Scrawny hanging trees outside ranch houses, walls scarred by bloody cracks, kids stolen by mysterious fiends and transformed into tormented ghosts, and slayers with devilish countenances are all elements revisited by Derrickson and co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, who here adapt—and flesh out—Joe Hill’s 2004 short story of the same name. That familiarity reads less as repetition than as artists striving to mine similar themes in new ways. The same is true of their material, whose particulars—a young girl with powers that resemble The Shining; the sight of kids in yellow slickers riding bikes in the rain; creatures that lure their targets with balloons; parents with bottles in one hand and a belt in the other—are akin to a compendium of remixed components from the oeuvre of Hill’s father, Stephen King.
Despite those influences, The Black Phone is its own maniacal beast, and it’s defined by The Grabber (Hawke), a child snatcher and serial killer who, at film’s start, has set this sleepy town on edge. Missing children flyers line the streets, and Gwen’s 13-year-old brother Finney (Mason Thames) is so unnerved that he barely dares speak this boogeyman’s nickname for fear that he might magically materialize. Nonetheless, in this 1970s enclave, kids still walk to and from school sans parental supervision as well as head off to sleepovers without first consulting their elders. For Finney and Gwen, that’s partially because, even with The Grabber on the loose, their prime concern is their father (Jeremy Davies), a scraggly-bearded, thinning-haired cretin who’s drowning his grief over his wife’s death in booze. For Davies, it’s a volatile part that fits like a glove, exploiting his penchant for unpredictably herky-jerky line readings and jittery body language, and the actor’s turn infuses the early going with disquieting instability.
Violence is everywhere in The Black Phone: Davies’ nasty daddy dishes out corporal punishment; a science class dissects frogs; tough-guy classmate Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) beats the living snot out of a bully at the bus stop and then protects Finney from others in a school bathroom; and the living room TV broadcasts nothing but horror movies and episodes of Emergency! In this vicious environment, Robin counsels Finney that he must learn to stand up for himself, and that lesson becomes pressing when—in the wake of the abduction of Robin, baseball slugger Bruce (Tristan Pravong), and others—Finney is taken by The Grabber, whose modus operandi involves posing as a magician and gassing his victims. Finney awakens to find himself in a concrete basement with a dirty mattress, a high grated window, and a black phone on the wall with a severed cord, although that doesn’t stop it from periodically ringing (and undulating like a beating heart), much to the boy’s alarm.
Worse, Finney is routinely visited by The Grabber, who wears a two-piece mask (designed by prosthetic makeup legend Tom Savini) marked by pointy horns and a toothy ear-to-ear grin that calls to mind Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. Exuding the sort of exaggerated cheer that’s the sole province of the insane (or the unholy), it’s a visage of unforgettable evil, and Hawke amplifies its creepiness by employing a tittering voice that’s at once childish, scheming, and cruel. The Grabber promises that he won’t hurt Finney, caressing his forehead and bringing him the occasional scrambled-egg breakfast, but his eyes say otherwise, and Finney doesn’t buy it for a second. Further convincing him that he’s in dire trouble are the voices on the other end of the black phone: boys who can’t remember their names and yet have clues to impart to Finney about his circumstances and, more importantly, his possible means of his escape.
Between these otherworldly aids and Gwen’s psychic abilities (inherited from her mother), The Black Phone presents a classic supernatural portrait of the dead returning from the grave to assist the living and exact vengeance against their executioners (not to mention indulges in some of King’s favorite storytelling shortcuts). If it sporadically feels as if Finney’s transformation into a self-reliant fighter comes a tad too easily, Hawke’s Grabber is a figure of such sinister horror—whether promising kindness with his words or intimating sadism through devious traps set for Finney—that the film elicits near-constant dread. Compounding that mood, Derrickson reconfirms his status as one of the few Hollywood directors capable of repeatedly executing successful jump-scares, delivering a series of sudden jolts that rattle the nerves.
The Black Phone ultimately resonates as a fable about innocence and violation, strength and maturation, and the way in which the sins of the father either empower or corrupt—the latter notion implied by The Grabber’s desire to play a twisted game called “Naughty Boy” in which he sits in a chair, shirtless, waiting to mercilessly punish his misbehaving opponent. Derrickson’s film couches itself in a ‘70s culture before America’s Most Wanted, helicopter parenting and smartphone GPS tracking apps, when children were more naïve, unsupervised, and vulnerable to the machinations of the wicked. The film’s period-piece specificity, however, provides little comfort from the overarching idea that we’re all potential prey for the monsters hiding in plain sight—especially ones as hauntingly malevolent as Hawke’s smiley-faced psycho.