This is what Scott Derrickson got up to after leaving Doctor Strange 2.
Having already agreed with frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill to work on The Black Phone when they were done with Strange, it instead became their next feature! Stepping back into the world of supernatural horror (though I feel that term is used loosely), they call on Ethan Hawke again to tell the creepy tale of a phone.
It’s 1978. You can tell by the aesthetic of the film, which leans into suitable amounts of nostalgic filters. And then ‘something’ bad happens but it’s left out of the shot. It’s not terribly thrilling, but then a spooky title sequence kicks in which is reasonably nice under the umbrella of horror. From there, we follow young actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as Finney and Gwen. They’re each dealing with their own childhood issues like bullies, crushes and dreams that may be real. Oh, and a threat by the name of The Grabber (Hawke).
Who understandably grabs Finney because that’s good drama.
Anyway, he ends up in a creepy basement while the Grabber starts wearing scary masks. Hawke really acts the chops out of his role which is surprising as he apparently had a “no bad guys” rule. He threw this out because of his age and the feeling he could add a a new “tool to his kit”. Fair enough, as it also led to their role in Moon Knight as villain Arthur Harrow.
The kid starts getting spooky calls in the creepy basement, which calls for the 2 jump scares the film provides. Outside of this, there’s no real overbearing fear of the situation. This could be due to the way it relies on the subject involved being the horror. Kids. Which is fine, but it typically calls on the most minute amounts of horror to be used. I think we’re also back in an era of horror where the conclusion is always positive. The Final Person will survive, especially in the way The Black Phone positions this role.
Apart from Hawke’s excellent work, the audio soundtrack is divine with the playful ways it layers tracks to bring up the eerie. There’s a handful of scenes where The Grabber’s voice reverberates with a layered, gravelly duplication of their lines which really make you question what you’re hearing.
It’s a fine enough film.
Which probably delegates the response that Derrickson made the right call to do this over Strange 2. If it gets a sequel, sure. But I’m not really sure what horrors are these days, because this felt like a thrilling adventure of some kid who overcame insane odds to grow up.
WELCOME TO THE HAWKE SHOW!
The strength of this feature rests solely on the shoulders of Hawke's 'The Grabber', who commands the scenes they feature in. The young cast surrounding them performs the effortless nostalgia of the 70's, while the supernatural hints at the playful energy of Peter Jackson's 'The Frighteners' with the darker thrills of M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Sixth Sense'.
But really, I just want to know why the phone breathes though.