Review: Scott Derrickson's Horror 'The Black Phone' and its Simplicity
by Manuel São Bento
June 26, 2022
There are many filmmakers who have endless opportunities regardless of the success of their films. There are also just as many filmmakers who find it extremely difficult to "move up the ladder" regardless of how well-received and financially profitable their projects end up. Despite his inconsistency, I consider Scott Derrickson an example of the latter. From The Exorcism of Emily Rose to Sinister, not forgetting Marvel's Doctor Strange or his 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, it's strange that a director so talented & capable of transforming low budgets into visually immersive movies doesn't have more chances to shine. Therefore, his return – after five years inactive – to cinema with The Black Phone was highly anticipated.
Wasting no time and getting straight to the point: I expected more. I can affirm that I couldn't be happier to see The Black Phone get a fantastic reception, both from critics and the general audience. Undoubtedly, it deserves a visit to the movie theater, and given the initial reactions from opening weekend, hardly anyone will leave dissatisfied. Unfortunately, this time I fall on the other side. Expectations weren't exactly low, and the premise made me particularly excited, in addition to casting Ethan Hawke as The Grabber, the man responsible for the kidnapping and murder of several children. So, I was negatively surprised by the simple, generic path that Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill's screenplay ends up following.
The first act is the film's strongest. It introduces siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) beautifully, focusing on their adorably inseparable relationship to create an equally strong bond with viewers. As they both live with an abusive, alcoholic father, their mutual protection and lovely affection for each other set an example of how all sibling relationships should be. In this opening, a continuously unsafe, gradually more tense atmosphere is also established, the technical aspect from which The Black Phone benefits the most, especially when actual horror takes control of the screen with Finney's kidnapping.
Any horror flick that cares more about its characters than any cheap jump scares will always get my full attention. Derrickson's clear vision and distinctive style create a visually captivating film, but it turns out to be the overly formulaic narrative that prevents The Black Phone from reaching its true potential. The supernatural component starts as an interesting element, but as the story develops and the revelations wear off, it becomes repetitive and significantly diminishes the entertainment and suspense levels. I anticipated more creativity rather than just another variation on something I've witnessed hundreds of times before.
The best that Derrickson's The Black Phone has to offer Hollywood is its young actors. Any movie starring children or teenagers as protagonists automatically puts its success at risk. Very few younger, inexperienced actors are able to deliver convincing performances, but Thames and McGraw not only convinced me, they impressed the hell out of me. By far, two of the most remarkable performances from young actors that I've seen in the last decade. While the young actress brings tremendous emotion and expressiveness to her role, Thames has no issues leading a film of this caliber.
On the other hand, partially going against the giant wave of appreciation for Ethan Hawke's performance, his character is one aspect whose potential was left at the door. The Black Phone develops nor provides absolutely any detail whatsoever about the lunatic serial killer, leaving The Grabber as a mere scary masked man. The problem isn't about having an antagonist who's a villain just because he's evil – I'd defend that Hollywood should play this card more often – but with his disappointingly short screen time. Hawke seems to be giving it all he's got, but since most of the time he's wearing a mask, it's hard to amaze with this role.
One last note and recommendation is to avoid trailers at all costs (that is if you haven't seen the film or the trailers already before reading this review). If the first trailer literally shows the whole movie, spoiling all the surprises and narrative developments throughout, I don't even want to imagine what they show in the follow-up trailers. The Black Phone doesn't have many jump scares, but Derrickson manages to create an extraordinary build-up for the first one that made me drop some popcorn while watching. The less you know when you enter the theater, the better your experience will be.
The Black Phone carries a horror premise with a supernatural touch full of potential, but it plays too safe by betting on a narrative that's too simple, predictable, and repetitive. Directors Scott Derrickson elevates the script with a distinct style, and the fact that the main focus belongs to the protagonists' development rather than on generic jump scares pleases me. Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are, without a doubt, the most impressive elements of the entire film, delivering two of the best performances by young actors of the last decade. Ethan Hawke is unfortunately underused, just like his unexplored character. I recommend the film, but personally, I expected something more creative.