After walking away from the prosperous prospect of overseeing the Doctor Strange sequel, Scott Derrickson has sought to wean himself off high-budget, high-profit, integrity-threatening superhero fare with the movie equivalent of methadone: a cold, hard shot of something nasty but purging and, in this case, effective. The Black Phone is a Blumhouse-backed adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) which allows Derrickson to continue functioning in the commercial mode, but without the attendant pressures of satisfying effects deadlines, the demands of the modern marketplace and the narrative strictures of a comic-book superstructure. It's teen-adjacent, and when it finally heads towards streaming, the algorithms can push it towards anyone who's watched Stand by Me, the It redos and/or Stranger Things, a potential audience that fortuitously numbers half the Western world. But it's also properly tough and thrilling, even horrifying, in the same way Derrickson's earlier horror-thrillers were able to be properly tough, thrilling and horrifying.
Under Blumhouse's roof (and the sanctuary of a hard-R rating), Derrickson has been freed up to push a little further than has been the multiplex norm, and indeed some considerable way beyond those childproofed Its. You notice it early on, in a kerbside beatdown where the camera lingers five (though it feels like fifteen) seconds longer on a teenager's bloodied face, and - conversely - in the unexpected but very funny mouthful of abuse our hero's meek-seeming, helium-voiced sister (Madeleine McGraw) spits out at an understandably surprised pair of cops. Most prominently, however, it's in the way the film gradually evokes the spectre of child abduction, and worse besides. What Hill has handed over to Derrickson and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill is a bleak overview of a late-Seventies community in North Denver that scarcely knows how to look out for its young, a ratrun of deadbeat dads, bullies lurking in the streets outside, and an ever-growing threat in the form of an offender of some kind referred to locally by the alias "The Grabber". The Wonder Years this is not.
What this brutal scenesetting is showing us, of course, is a form of basic training; it's Hill, Derrickson and Cargill collectively asserting that the generation raised in the Seventies were, and had to be, made of sterner stuff. The viciousness of this quote-unquote normal suburban life leaves our sensitive, feather-haired hero Finn (Mason Thames) uniquely suited to scrabbling out of a hole after he's bundled into the back of a black van by a figure claiming to be a party magician (Ethan Hawke). At which point the film reduces itself further, becomes even more back-to-basics, leaving two performers attempting to outmanoeuvre one another on a single set: the Grabber's lair, a stripped-down escape room concealing clues and pitfalls and only connected to the outside world, or an adjacent astral plane, by the titular object. It's likely a matter of Covid logistics: this is the kind of largely self-contained production that's now easier and safer to shoot. Yet the set-up also offers considerable creative advantages. For starters, it forces Derrickson to focus - really focus - on this one small, standalone story, rather than, say, its place in the multiverse, or what time the Guardians of the Galaxy are going to show up for their contractually obliged cameos. No superheroes here; the film is as notable for what it shuts out as for what it leaves (and locks) in.
It's a pretty gripping story in its own right, though, Hill synthesising elements of his father's work (It, Carrie, even Shawshank) but with a subtly postmodern and self-reflexive slant that chimes with Derrickson's established interest in how stories get pieced together. (Consider anew the courtroom chicanery of 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and - if you can stand to - the snuff movies of 2012's Sinister.) None of the MCU's assorted doohickeys and Infinity Stones are as compelling in their own right as that black telephone, which lends Derrickson's film a dash of Lynchian surrealism (it's not connected; still, it rings) while also serving on a narrative level as a party line for the abused and traumatised, a (literally analogue) analogue for the message boards and What'sApp groups of the 21st century; a means of sharing experiences, providing mutual care and support, and finally figuring out some way of moving forward towards the light. (Like those forums, it eventually proves to be a lifeline.)
We may need a separate discussion about Derrickson and Cargill's reappropriation of the tools and methodology of the Time's Up movement, whether for the purposes of entertainment or to assert that, hey, we too had more than our fair share of predatory shit to deal with back in the day. But from a purely artistic perspective, they're unarguably committed to it, and the thrill of The Black Phone lies in watching an American multiplex proposition that is prepared to be authentically grim and unsettling when its narrative requires it. Every uningratiating choice serves this restatement of creative purpose, not least those made at the casting stage. Jeremy Davies makes Finn's alcoholic dad so fervently unsmiling you begin to wonder whether his offspring have any hope at all; James Ransone - a.k.a. The Wire's transcendentally exasperating Ziggy Sobotka - shows up, doing lines, as a midfilm curveball and possible red herring; Hawke, meanwhile, is monstrously jacked (one positive from The Northman?) and striking terrifying poses behind a mask that suggests what might have happened had the Devil ever made out with Tony Blair. (Like I said: terrifying.)
Their commitment obliges Derrickson to recalibrate himself and his camera. The control demonstrated (and tension generated) while tracking around the Grabber's lair - testing boundaries, hunting weakspots - far outstrips the setpieces in Doctor Strange, farmed out as those likely were to assistant directors or Marvel's own in-house action team. Now he's using his resources to land a punch or two again, rather than distract or kill time: some of his crosscutting during the finale seems to prey on cinephile memories of The Silence of the Lambs, while Hawke has been encouraged to come on roughly as strong as he did in the later stages of First Reformed, which is just insane when you stop to think about it. (Here, at last, is the 21st century performance that bears the closest comparison to Tim Curry's generation-haunting work in the original It.) You have to be pretty big and brave to walk away from the MCU, which may now be the movieworld's own Grabber, bundling countless wide-eyed talents into its van and imprisoning them for years to no especially edifying end. Yet after seeing the big nothing Sam Raimi made of Doctor Strange 2, The Black Phone indicates Derrickson was entirely correct to do so - and also that it would do Raimi no creative harm whatsoever to get back to stark, pulpy, punchy basics such as this.
The Black Phone is playing in cinemas nationwide.