Today’s the day.
Sulfuric mist rises from the streets, a bleak fog enveloping and ensnaring a town in its deadly grasp. The dour atmosphere clouds vision, spilled blood running through the streets as it mixes with the falling rain, too quickly diluted to trace its origin, a crimson-tinted slurry washing away through the rusting pipes. In the midst of the suburban sprawl a supernatural energy lurks, an evil that feels beyond this world, tendrils of rotting decay and violent madness searching for youthful energy to feed on. A game of death ensues, an eldritch beckoning to submit to the call of the gaping maw and enter, to tumble into the trap and cross from one world to another. As the entity feeds so does it release its chaotic power, a humming psionic vibration that seeps across once harshly defined realms. As the dead claw their way towards the surface it all begins to bleed together, collective trauma surfacing as hazy memories, scar tissue etching lingering notions of escape into permanence.
The suffocating exhaustion of growing up tinted even darker by a grim presence, a town plagued by the disappearance of children making life a constant state of paranoia and tension as an unknown force seeks to continue inciting panic throughout the quiet streets. Your friends vanish with no trace. Neighborhood kids you share those sporadic formative memories with, gone in an instant. Each time you turn a corner a thought lingers, an acidic note hitting the back of the throat as you wonder if it’s finally your time to disappear. All the pain and suffering of trying to make it through those tumultuous years seems like enough, but one day you wake in a bloodstained basement, a masked demon your torturous captor. Thrust into chaos and faced with violent death, it becomes time to face yourself and find your resilience for the sake of your own life. A dead, disconnected phone rings, echoing through the concrete walls. It offers a voice, but it still comes down to you.
Despite conventional and familiar underpinnings, Scott Derrickson’s return to horror after venturing into studio blockbusters with Doctor Strange (2016) takes the novel approach at nearly every turn, a refreshingly terrifying adventure that’s keenly aware of audience expectations. It revels in the unexplained, the cosmically chaotic senseless evil the characters are confronted with, refusing to ever delve into what makes any of it tick – and it’s all for the better. An approach bolstered by Ethan Hawke’s subtly menacing performance as The Grabber, a presence that never oversteps into cartoonish villainy or excess. Donning a mask designed by horror make-up legend Tom Savini, he is a character defined by enigma, a formless servant of death that can’t be pinned down.
Steeped in ambiguity and the unknowable, the dark atmosphere that creates The Black Phone shines with King-esque familiarity, a natural feeling coming from a story penned by King’s son Joe Hill, but it never feels like a weak imitation, instead a reverent echo of the supernatural evocations and collective small town grief. As it weaves together the stories of the imprisoned Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) attempting to find him, these paranormal elements rise to the surface: memory, premonition and specter alike all bleeding together, emanating from a well-kept and unassuming home into the streets beyond. The atmosphere is pitch perfect, a bleak and grim landscape that grants weight to the inexplicable as Finney uses the phone to communicate with the deceased victims of The Grabber. Each of them offer support and experience, providing the knowledge they gained in their own attempts to escape, slowly piecing together their captor’s sick game.
The foundational layering here in setting and execution offers great opportunity to build narrative and character, an opportunity that is often undermined by its own predilections to fall into some of the tired tropes of modern horror cinema. Rather than allowing itself room to breathe and letting the tension seep forth from the screen, it often goes the way of cheap jumpscares or rote terror, failing to capitalize on its own achievements. These moments add little value and introduce a cynical exhaustion to it all, a frustration that the film feels it necessary to rely on this form of stylization, but despite its best efforts the sum of its parts remains effective and gripping, building up to a third act full of blood and suspense, a welcome release of its constant winding tension. The Black Phone may be wrought with just enough missteps to miss the mark with many, but for those who can find its wavelength and be along for the ride, it’s sure to become a classic of chaotically menacing energy.