The Black Phone
is a combination of cinematic tropes that work on an intuitive level. The film's source material is Stephen King's son, Joe Hill's horror short story, The Black Phone
. Director Scott Derrickson (Marvel's Dr. Strange
) combined the 30-page horror short story with his childhood traumas, anti-nostalgia bent, and an impressive Ethan Hawke in his first villain role. The result is an atmospheric movie that assures doom to viewers while cruelly delaying the inevitable.
Derrickson relayed that he used his childhood trauma (trauma that has taken him 3 years of ongoing therapy to come to terms with) to inform The Black Phone
. The storytelling revolves around a serial killer known as 'The Grabber'. He is abducting and presumably killing teenagers in Denver, Colorado. Our protagonist is 13-year-old Finney Shaw (actor Mason Thames), who gives us a childlike view of suburbia in the 70s. Derrickson stays true to his convictions, showing the less sparkly sides of childhood. He refuses to engage in glamorizing the past, even stating, “Bob Dylan said, ‘Nostalgia is death,’ and I tend to agree with that
.” There are bullies everywhere, a deceased Mom, and an alcoholic father who beats Gwen for being too much like his late mother. Not to mention, the father gets no real comeuppance, a sad reality for many that Derrickson speaks to through his film and characters.
Derrickson gives us suffocating chain link fences, overcast skies, and the omnipresent threat of unchecked abuse both in and outside Finney's home. The director never lets up on the foreboding atmosphere, increasing the tension steadily by keeping a grey, unfeeling world in constant contrast with the fleeting happiness between Finney and his sister, Gwen. Derrickson mostly aims for realism in his film technique, showing conflicting images. Gwen and Finney's relationship, being symbolic of siblings enduring an abusive, alcoholic father, school bullies, and grief over a deceased mother, is one of closeness. This makes Finney's eventual abduction even more heart-wrenching. Derrickson employs this emotional bombing in several relationships. For instance, Robin befriends Finney and saves him from his bullies. We are introduced to him demolishing a bully's face and soon learn that he is a trained fighter... only for the following sequence to show him being ambushed by 'The Grabber'. This move could feel cheap in a less capable director's hands, but instead, we feel even more inevitable doom when 'The Grabber' abducts Finney in the inciting incident. What hope can our frail protagonist have if his guardian was no match? This is the quintessential question that the film centers on.