Release Date(s)2022 (August 16, 2022)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C
One of the surprise hits of 2022, Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone offers a straightforward horror story that’s more about dealing with bullies than murder. Simultaneously, Ethan Hawke’s name was on everyone’s lips, not only because of The Black Phone, but because of his appearance in Marvel’s Moon Knight series. It was also a reunion of sorts for Derrickson and Hawke, who had previously made Sinister together years before. The film was a success upon release, prompting an as-of-yet unmade sequel. Popular with audiences and critics alike, many consider it to be one of the better horror films of recent memory.
Taking place in the late 1970s, young Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) navigate their daily existence by dealing with their drunk and abusive father (Jeremy Davies) and constant bullying from kids at school. Complicating their lives further is a local serial killer known as “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke), who is snatching kids off the street. One day as Finney is walking home, he too is grabbed, waking up in a soundproofed basement with only one door and a mattress. Visiting him daily is a disturbed man wearing frightening masks, who often leaves the door cracked in the hopes that Finnie will play his sadistic game by trying to escape so that he may kill him. Also in the basement is a black phone with seemingly no connection to it, but when it rings, Finnie answers it. He speaks to The Grabber’s dead victims, who instruct him on what to do in order to survive. Meanwhile, Gwen is having psychic visions in her dreams, convincing the authorities that she’s close to discovering the truth, but Finnie must endure if he’s to be found.
In terms of building atmosphere and not relying on jump scares, The Black Phone does a whole lot right. It focuses on its characters, less so than things coming out of the shadows to say boo, or providing buckets of gore. Those things can be entertaining in other types of films, but for a story like this that relies on believing in the situation without having everything explained, it’s imperative to pull back on the reins of those aspects. Unfortunately, for this reviewer, the film feels clunky with sometimes questionable performances and complete lapses in logic. It’s difficult to swallow an abused child lashing out with violence and off-color language at not just other kids, but adults. For someone who lives their life in total fear, young Gwen certainly seems fearless outside of her home. Thankfully, she gives a better performance than her big brother co-star, who is completely one note. There’s also an element to the story which is difficult to talk about without spoiling, but it concerns the location of The Grabber’s residence, and the discovery of it. It’s poorly handled as the film tries to introduce an overtly comedic character, which feels totally out of place in a story about abuse and violence towards children. The constant needle drops of 1970s rock songs doesn’t help the aesthetic much either.
However, the biggest positives are that The Grabber’s backstory is never analyzed and that there’s no explanation as to where the black phone came from, how it works, or whether or not The Grabber can hear it or has been using it himself. It’s all left unexplained, which strengthens the mystery of the film, leaving one with more questions than answers. In a modern film, be it horror or otherwise, that is certainly not commonplace, and it’s a wonder that audiences haven’t rejected the film because of it. Scott Derrickson, who left directing the Doctor Strange sequel to make this film, has certainly crafted something that seems to have resonated with audiences in a way that a lot of modern horror hasn’t in a long time. There’s been no lack of fun and inventive genre work recently, but The Black Phone seems to have the ability to not only scare, but connect with its audience on a more personal level, making the horror all the more impactful.
The Black Phone was primarily captured digitally by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz with Arri Alexa Mini cameras in the ARRIRAW (3.4K) codec using Hawk V-Lite, V-Plus, Zeiss Super Speed, and Lensbaby lenses. Certain sequences were shot on 8 mm film using a Bolex 155 Super 8 camera. Everything was finished digitally as a 4K Digital Intermediate in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Universal Pictures brings The Black Phone to Blu-ray using this source with a competent high definition presentation. I personally thought that the 8 mm and digitally-sourced footage clashed both visually and aesthetically. After all, this is a film that takes place in the 1970s. Perhaps shooting all of it on film and not just portions of it would have been a better way to go. Regardless, the digitally-shot footage offers high levels of detail with hues that pop, but more importantly, deep, shadowy blacks. It’s a tad flat as a UHD release with high dynamic range would give more depth to it, but it’s an otherwise slick presentation with no major flaws to speak of.
Audio is included in English and Spanish 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as French 5.1 DTS Digital Surround and English Descriptive Video Service. Subtitle options include English SDH, Spanish, and French. The 7.1 track is a particular powerhouse with excellent spacing for the various sound effects, giving the score and aforementioned needle drops propulsiveness. Dialogue exchanges are always clear and discernible, while atmospherics are placed all around the sound stage. Low end activity is also impressive. It’s a surprisingly dynamic track for a film that’s not driven by explosions or frequent visual activity.
The Black Phone sits in a blue amaray case alongside a DVD copy of the film and a Digital code on a paper insert. Everything is housed in a slipcover featuring the original poster artwork. The following extras are included on the Blu-ray, all in HD:
- Audio Commentary by Scott Derrickson
- Deleted Scenes: Is This America Now? (:49)
- Deleted Scenes: No Dreams (:29)
- Ethan Hawke’s Evil Turn (4:25)
- Answering the Call: Behind the Scenes of The Black Phone (10:40)
- Devil in the Design (5:15)
- Super 8 Set (1:48)
- Shadowprowler (11:57)
The audio commentary with director Scott Derrickson is a fairly decent one. He explains how the film not only came from Joe Hill’s story, but a very personal place for him as he dealt with violence and death in his own childhood, which he continues to deal with as an adult. He highlights the cast and crew as the film goes on, commenting upon scenes as they appear. He drops out and leaves gaps of silence occasionally, but it’s an otherwise interesting track, and the best extra on the disc by far. Both Deleted Scenes are brief and nothing special—just tiny snippets that aren’t missed. Ethan Hawke’s Evil Turn speaks directly to the actor about his involvement in the film. The material presented in Answering the Call is glossy, but it does manage to speak to the director of photography and some of the child actors outside of the leads. As per usual, it’s an extremely quick overview and barely mentions the film’s themes and dynamics, but a couple of interesting tidbits are dropped here and there. Devil in the Design discusses the production design of the film, as well as the masks, which features an appearance by Tom Savini. Super 8 Set discusses shooting portions of the film on Super 8 film. Shadowprowler is a short film directed by Scott Derrickson, which is fairly effective, but has an ending that makes little sense—meaning that you’ll either get it and dig it or you won’t and hate it.
I was unfortunately disappointed with a lot of things in The Black Phone, and perhaps I’m getting hung up on aspects of it that most can ignore easily. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but the hype surrounding it left me feeling a little more coldly toward it than I might have had I seen it with a fresher perspective. In any case, fans and newcomers alike should be pleased with the Blu-ray presentation, though why it wasn’t also released on UHD is unclear. Perhaps when the sequel drops, Universal with finally give it its day on the superior format.
- Tim Salmons