The Black Phone (2021) poster

The Black Phone (2021)


USA. 2021.


Director – Scott Derrickson, Screenplay – C. Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson, Based on the Short Story by Joe Hill, Producers – Jason Blum, C. Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson, Photography – Brett Jutkiewicz, Music – Mark Korven, Visual Effects – Kills VFX (Supervisor – Jason Gandhi), Stargate Studios, VFX Legion (Supervisors – James David Hattin & Kent Johnson), Special Effects Supervisor – Jehan Purcell, Masks Created and Designed by Jason Baker & Tom Savini, Callosum Studios Inc, Production Design – Patti Podesta. Production Company – Blumhouse Productions/Crooked Highway Productions.


Mason Thames (Finney Blake), Ethan Hawke (The Grabber), Madeleine McGraw (Gwen Blake), Jeremy Davies (Terrence Blake), E. Roger Mitchell (Detective Wright), Troy Rudeseal (Detective Miller), James Ransone (Max), Miguel Cazarez Mora (Robin Arellano), Rebecca Clarke (Donna), J. Gaven Wilde (Moose), Spencer Fitzgerald (Buzz), Jordan Isaiah White (Matty), Brady Ryan (Matt), Tristan Pravong (Bruce), Jacob Moran (Billy Showalter), Brady Hepner (Vance Hopper), Sheila M. O’Rear (Principal Keller)


North Denver, 1978. The neighbourhood is being terrorised by a killer nicknamed The Grabber who snatches children. Finney Blake’s younger sister Gwen is questioned by police after she had a dream where she saw one of the missing children being snatched by someone surrounded by black balloons. After his friend Robin is taken by The Grabber, Finney presses Gwen to search for him in her dreams. Finney is walking home when meets an amateur magician just as he drops his supplies in the street. This turns out to be The Grabber who snatches Finney when he goes to help, masking what he does with a clutch of black balloons. Finney is thrown in a basement beneath The Grabber’s house. Attached to the wall is a black telephone, although Finney is told it doesn’t work. Finney then starts to receive calls on the phone that come from the other dead children that were held prisoner in the basement. Wandering in mind and having forgotten who they were, the ghosts try to impart information to help Finney escape.

The Black Phone was the seventh film directed by Scott Derrickson. Derrickson first appeared as director of Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) and around the same time as screenwriter of Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000). Derrickson’s name then began to rise with the unexpectedly successful The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which gained a great deal of word of mouth success based on its claims to be based on a real-life exorcism (even though the film departed facts to the point of being a complete fiction). Derrickson next went on to make the derided remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008); his first collaboration with Blumhouse with Sinister (2012), which received great word of mouth; another true-life possession film Deliver Us From Evil (2014); and then Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange (2016). In between these, Derrickson has also produced the Christian horror film The Visitation (2006), the horror film Kirsty (2014), Sinister 2 (2015) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), as well as wrote/produced Devil’s Knot (2013) based on true story of the West Memphis Three.

Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King and become a rising name as a horror writer since the mid-2000s. There have been a number of works adapted from Hill’s works with the films Horns (2012) and In the Tall Grass (2019) and the tv series’ NOS4A2 (2019-20) and Locke & Key (2020-2). The Black Phone is based on Hill’s short story of the same name that appeared in 2004 and can be found in his collection 20th Century Ghosts (2005).

Scott Derrickson can be an extremely variable talent – where he seems to swing between poles of acceptance and derision with each film. That said, The Black Phone has ended up getting some of the best notices of his career. It would have been easy for this to become a formulaic work but Derrickson places much effort in to make sure it is not. This is evident from the opening scenes grounding the film in rural Denver in the late 1970s – the scenes where Mason Thames faces bullying at school, while at home life the two children are raised by an alcoholic father who readily beats them seem a world away from the rosy reminiscences of other works – say something like That 70s Show (1998-2006). At the same time, Jeremy Davies’ father is not caricatured as either bad or good and we also see him trying to raise his family on his own and as being caring and concerned for them.

Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone (2021)
Ethan Hawke as The Grabber
Finney Blake (Mason Thames) answers the black phone in The Black Phone (2021)
Finney Blake (Mason Thames) answers the black phone

The Black Phone becomes an Imprisonment Thriller – it could be one of dozens of other entries in this genre. There have been other films about child killers from M (1931) to Don’t Torture a Ducking (1972) but what transforms it into something else altogether is the addition of the ghost children. The calls with eerily disembodied voices, wandering in memory but at the same time trying to impart a series of urgent clues to help Mason Thames deal with his situation have a dark urgency. Derrickson opens up the bare cellar where most of the action takes place with unsettling images of bodies floating in mid-air or ghosts being snatched off into the darkness. There is a dread chill aspect to the film where the death that awaits Mason at the hands of The Grabber is something horrible but what comes after seems even less pleasant.

Ethan Hawke, previously the lead in Scott Derrickson’s Sinister, takes what is being billed as his first villainous role. It is an unusual performance, one where Hawke plays almost entirely from behind a mask that covers all or half of his face. The mask itself, with prehensile animal jawline and horns, all designed by cult makeup effects artist Tom Savini, known for his work on Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), is unsettling.

Jason Blum and his Blumhouse production company have produced a number of other genre films including:- Hamlet (2000), Paranormal Activity (2007) and sequels, Insidious (2010) and sequels, Tooth Fairy (2010), The Bay (2012), The Lords of Salem (2012), The River (tv series, 2012), Sinister (2012) and sequel, Dark Skies (2013), Oculus (2013), The Purge (2013) and sequels, the tv mini-series Ascension (2014), Creep (2014), Jessabelle (2014), Mercy (2014), Mockingbird (2014), Not Safe for Work (2014), Ouija (2014) and sequel, 13 Sins (2014), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), Unfriended/Cybernatural (2014), Area 51 (2015), The Boy Next Door (2015), Curve (2015), The Gallows (2015), The Gift (2015), Jem and the Holograms (2015), The Lazarus Effect (2015), Martyrs (2015), Visions (2015), The Visit (2015), The Darkness (2016), Hush (2016), Incarnate (2016), The Veil (2016), Viral (2016), Amityville: The Awakening (2017), Get Out (2017), Happy Death Day (2017), The Keeping Hours (2017), Split (2017), Stephanie (2017), Bloodline (2018), Cam (2018), Delirium (2018), Halloween (2018), Seven in Heaven (2018), Truth or Dare (2018), Upgrade (2018), Black Christmas (2019), Ma (2019), Prey (2019), Don’t Let Go (2019), Sweetheart (2019), Black Box (2020), The Craft: Legacy (2020), Evil Eye (2020), Fantasy Island (2020), Freaky (2020), The Hunt (2020), The Invisible Man (2020), Nocturne (2020), You Should Have Left (2020), Black As Night (2021), Dashcam (2021), Firestarter (2022), M3gan (2022), Mr Harrigan’s Phone (2022), Nanny (2022), Soft & Quiet (2022), Run Sweetheart Run (2022), Sick (2022), They/Them (2022), Torn Hearts (2022), Unhuman (2022), The Exorcist (2023), Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023) and There’s Something Wrong With the Children (2023).

Trailer here

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