Many directors who enter the Hollywood machine are often faced with a looming creative existential crisis – do they trade away what makes their art their art for the sake of getting the project green-lit, or do they fight back against the villainous studio executives in suits that want to change their creations into something they aren’t? Well, the answer is never quite simple. And director Scott Derrickson is coming hot off the frying pan of exactly this kind of crisis, departing from his directing role for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) due to “creative differences”, his next film aims to be somewhat of a return to form. His filmography throughout the years varies greatly, from sci-fi flicks like The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) to superhero extravaganzas like the first Doctor Strange (2016) film; Derrickson has worked within the confines of a vast variety of genres, but arguably, is in his element when conducting horror. Now, after his hiatus and creative disagreement with the folks at Marvel Studios, he has finally returned to smaller scale storytelling with The Black Phone.
To his credit, Derrickson is responsible for creating some of the most inventive and unsettling horror scares in the past 20 years via his hit film Sinister (2012); a fairly generic horror flick that contained both cliché jumpscares and never-before-seen genre-defining horror sequences. In fact, a 2020 study conducted by broadbandchoices even concluded Sinister to be the “scariest film they had ever tested” based on the highest average heart rates of their test audience. So it’s tough not to feel some level of anticipation for Derrickson’s dive back into horror. The Black Phone is perhaps the strongest signal out there to audiences that Derrickson has officially returned to his roots and that he’s a director with his own vision, not just another Hollywood henchman. And after reuniting with actor Ethan Hawke (who starred in Derrickson’s horror flick Sinister), we are treated to something truly worthwhile.
The Black Phone is one of those claustrophobic, stuck in one location kind of films; set in an underground dwelling where the protagonist must use their wits to overcome adversity in the face of a wholly unpredictable threat. The Black Phone follows the story of a young highschool boy named Finney (Mason Thames) who is targeted by a serial killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and attempts to survive at all costs; meanwhile Finney’s sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), tries her best to track down her brother to save him from the sadistic killer. Not unlike familial horror-thrillers such as Split (2016) or 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), we are treated to the type of horror flick that builds towards its climax instead of jabbing you with multiple exhaustive moments – scenes go from unsettling to tense, back to unsettling, and then finally, climactic.
As far as direct scares go, Derrickson couldn’t avoid his typical “blasts loud noise to scare you” moments; but he more than makes up for these sins by fully utilizing the unnerving performance by Ethan Hawke as the films core terror. Hawke’s portrayal of the masked “grabber” is eerily calm and violently explosive at the same time, it drums up feelings that make you think “what the hell is this lunatic about to do?”. It also makes you wonder why Ethan Hawke hasn’t helmed far more villainous roles throughout his career. For the protagonists, Mason Thames does an admirable job as the terrorized young boy, but is outshun by his co-star Madeleine McGraw (who plays his sister). McGraw manages to portray a far more emotionally compelling character that felt a touch underutilized given her level of talent. Though I would like to see McGraw helm a leading role, I’m glad she wasn’t here, as it may have been a touch too traumatic for most audiences.
Derrickson injects his iconic Super8 film sequences throughout to present memories with a feeling of nostalgia – he did something similar in Sinister (those of you who have seen it will know the scenes). He also focuses on family division and builds toward an emotional payoff. However, while The Black Phone isn’t by any measure a wholly unique thriller, or horror, or film as a story – it contains just enough unique individual moments to distinguish itself among most horrors released today. Director Scott Derrickson further cements his directing style here and while this is by no means elevated horror – its jumpy, creepy, and thrilling enough to be a perfect popcorn horror.