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Black Phone, The
Director Scott Derrickson may not have a perfect filmography but I usually find something to like in his movies, with the 2012 horror hit Sinister being a highlight. Derrickson re-teams with Ethan Hawke for the psychological and supernatural horror film The Black Phone, which he also wrote and produced. Set in late 1970s suburbia, the film sees a serial abductor known as "The Grabber" picking up children from the streets outside Denver. Hawke plays the antagonist in a Japanese Oni mask, driving his balloon-filled van around to inflict dread and pain on others. Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Blake (Madeleine McGraw) live with their alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies), and Gwen shares the vivid, psychic dreams of her late mother. A friend of Finney's gets abducted after a baseball game and before he knows it, Finney is being incapacitated and kidnapped by the Grabber. He is taken to a stark basement with only a bare mattress, toilet, barred window and old, black rotary phone to keep him company. As the Grabber begins toying with Finney, the phone begins to ring from the beyond, where the Grabber's past victims want to help Finney escape their fate.
Derrickson is a strong writer, and his films offer increasingly deep characters and themes. As the credits rolled on The Black Phone I was not sure how I felt about it. I decided to watch it again two nights later, and my appreciation grew. This is absolutely a "coming of age" horror film as some sites suggest, and once I adjusted my expectations about what kind of film Derrickson shot, I was much happier. The film is certainly creepy and intense at times, but is not a jump-scare heavy, cover-the-eyes creeper like Sinister. The Black Phone is more concerned with its characters, particularly Finney, who carries the entire film on his shoulders. Without such a talented young actor in the lead role, the movie no doubt would have floundered. Hawke is great but necessarily has limited screen time. That he is masked nearly the entire film is an interesting detail in the era of COVID, and you begin to feel emotion through Hawke's voice.
As the film progresses, I started really rooting for Finney. Every setback and dead-end is devastating, and Derrickson does a nice job bringing out his villain at the exact right moment. There are plenty of times when Finney is unsupervised, but, as one caller warns him, that is part of the game. The supernatural elements are handled well, too. The calls begin with hushed voices on the other end from people who do not even remember who they are. Finney recognizes his friend Robin (Miguel Cazarez), who always stuck up for Finney at school. He learns about possible escape routes and the Grabber's routine. Meanwhile, detectives Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Miller (Troy Rudeseal) search for the Grabber, getting as close as the upstairs of the house where Finney is being held. The man's brother, Max (James Ransone), is totally oblivious to the horrors happening in the house.
Not only is it easy to root for Finney, but Gwen is a strong character, too. She begins her own investigation and gets closer to Finney through her dreams than the officers do. The Black Phone is also unexpectedly about loss and the healing of a broken family; a story undercurrent I was not expecting. Amid several tense escape sequences is abundant character development, and Hawke is clearly having a blast in his devilish role. Although his dive into the Marvel Universe with Doctor Strange is fun, I like Derrickson sticking to his more intimate projects. The Black Phone is a treat for fans of modern horror. The direction and writing is strong, the acting is excellent, and the film is fully entertaining.
Although Universal has not yet offered a 4K Ultra HD release, this 2.39:1/1080p/AVC-encoded HD transfer is no slouch. As expected from a new release, this is a crisp, highly detailed presentation with strong color reproduction, solid black levels and natural highlights. The film has a muted ‘70s aesthetic and many scenes take place in tight, dimly lit interiors, but the transfer handles these locations with ease. Close-ups reveal strong facial details, shadow detail is abundant, and the film looks good in motion. I noticed no issues with motion blur or aliasing.
The disc offers a fantastic 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track to complement the creepy proceedings. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and ambient effects make solid use of the surrounds. The film has some neat soundtrack design elements, and the entire sound field is utilized. Action-oriented sequences rumble the LFE to life, and the score is appropriately balanced with dialogue and effects. Spanish 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio dubs are included, as are English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc release includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy (which in 2022 is kind of pointless) and a digital copy code. The discs are packed in a standard case that is wrapped in a slipcover. Universal has begun labeling many releases "Collector's Editions" whether warranted or not, but there are few nice extras included. You get an Audio Commentary by Scott Derrickson; Deleted Scenes (1:21/HD); Ethan Hawke's Evil Turn (4:25/HD); Answering the Call: Behind the Scenes of The Black Phone (10:40/HD); Devil in the Design (5;15/HD); Super 8 Set (1:48/HD); and Shadowprowler (11:57/HD), a short film from Derrickson.
Scott Derrickson's The Black Phone is an accomplished psychological horror film with excellent performances from leads Mason Thames and Ethan Hawke. While it is not jump-scare heavy or full of gore, the film offers strong character development and unexpectedly resonant themes. Universal provides a solid standard Blu-ray release. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.