With the notable exception of It (2017), children’s subjectivity has largely remained taboo in horror movies, a genre that tends to feature youth as either the source of evil (à la
The Omen (1976) and Children of the Corn (1984) or the can’t-kill sacred cows of franchise entries hellbent on butchering teens (see Halloween and Friday the 13th). However, as Universal’s summer horror release The Black Phone illustrates, the repressed underbelly of children’s desire for maturity and denial of vulnerability may serve as the closest our culture has to collective fear.
Based on a short story by Joe Hill, The Black Phone traces the sibling bond Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeline McGraw) forge in the mid-70s to cope with their widowed father (Jeremy Davies)’s sudden descent into physical abuse and alcoholism. Given their homelife, the recent rash of child abductions at the hands of The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) seems a more distant threat until Finney becomes his latest victim when the serial killer, posing as a magician, lures him into the back of his van. As the police bungle through the case, Gwen has prophetic dreams while Finney connects with the spirits of The Grabber’s previous victims via the titular disconnected black phone in his basement prison.
Rather than adhere to one horror subgenre, The Black Phone opts for a hybrid approach, combining the slasher, ghost story, and serial-killer thriller as a way to avoid predictable narrative beats. The finished product could have come off as a patronizing assembly of horror conventions, but director and co-writer Scott Derrickson takes the story seriously, foregrounding the family drama by positioning the erosion of masculinity in the Me Decade as the film’s true villain, a blight that spurs the breakup of the traditional family and inspires The Grabber’s deranged and decidedly nonsexual obsession with adolescent boys, In a film that never dilutes brutal violence, the most disturbing scene is not one of The Grabber’s murders, but rather, of an extended beating Gwen’s father gives her in front of Finney after the police reveal that she exhibits the same psychic gifts as her mother. In a film that hinges on savage acts, Derrickson imbues the lasting results of trauma and grief into every character arc, a decision that offers more nuance than the average studio horror film.
Since The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Derrickson has helmed a host of intelligent occult-focused movies from Sinister (2012)—his first collaboration with the always impressive Hawke–to Marvel’s demon-centric Doctor Strange (2016). Throughout this filmography, he has grappled with the realities of good and evil, a thematic preoccupation that prevents his films from descending into nihilistic gorno, moral relativism, or the nostalgia of other kid-led properties such as Stranger Things (the film’s opening sequence, which abruptly shifts from a “Free Ride”-scored Denver suburban utopia to The Grabber’s hellscape, serves as a brilliant rejoinder to idealization of the past).
Derrickson has never shied away from discussing his faith and views on horror as “the genre of non-denial” that forces humans to confront evil and mortality. Such a perspective also allows The Black Phone to openly meditate on the divine in the tradition of Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, or at least in that of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002). Gwen doubts her faith, her father rejects his, and Finney can’t reconcile that he’s responsible for ending The Grabber’s reign of terror after a life of bullying and neglect. Yet, each is called to be better and embrace their potential in a fallen world–thematic territory all too rare in American film–horror or otherwise.
In theaters and on premium VOD July 15th.