Derrickson: The Black Phone (2021)
The Black Phone is Scott Derrickson’s latest film – and it is an extraordinary continuation of the concepts and approaches that he adopted in Sinister. Based on a short story by Joe Hill, the pen name of Stephen King’s son, it’s also an object lesson in how to retain all the cryptic, oblique and elliptical qualities of short fiction when translating it to the big screen. The story unfolds in North Denver in the 1970s, where a serial killer nicknamed the Grabber, played by Ethan Hawke, is abducting and (presumably) murdering young children. We see this play out through the eyes of Finn, a high school student played by Mason Thames, who senses the Grabber encircling him after an acquaintance and then a friend is taken. Finally, Finn is also abducted, and held prisoner in a basement, where a mysterious black phone, implanted in the wall, offers him an unexpected prospect of escape, and a profound boost to his resilience.
What ensues is the next step beyond Zodiac, as Derrickson absorbs and transforms David Fincher’s vision of the serial killer as an emblem of suburban space in the 70s. For while Fincher may have had a childhood connection to Zodiac – he was on one of the bus routes that the killer threatened to bomb – Derrickson is far more interested in what it meant to be a child during the golden age of serial killers. From the outset, The Black Phone is fixated on the vulnerability of children in suburban space at this time. In fact, the main period signifier is the sheer amount of space around children, and the space that children have to roam, which starts off as quite a buoyant prospect, only to enable the emergence of the Grabber.
We see this buoyancy in the pre-credit sequence, which traces a series of increasingly flamboyant sightlines around childhood activities. Finn is introduced playing baseball, and conceding a home run when the batsman, Bruce, played by Tristan Pravong, launches it over the back of the field. That soaring trajectory segues into the first tracking-shot of the film, which follows Bruce, elated from his victory, as he cycles home from the game, acknowledging an adoring horde of girls before flicking his head back to see a rocket that Finn has launched from the same baseball field. This exuberant spatial command also pre-empts a new kind of virtual space, both in the network of gazes during the baseball game, and the way that Bruce networks his female fans and the arc of Finney’s rocket into the supreme flow of his bike ride.
During these opening scenes, I was expecting the Grabber to emerge gradually, Zodiac-style, at the fringes of Derrickson’s naturalistic space, in the same way that Fincher seamlessly extends his analog mise-en-scenes into more digitised realms. Instead, Bruce’s gaze shifts from the girls, to the rocket, to the Grabber’s black van, which appears abruptly, terminates Bruce’s sightline just as abruptly, and causes a rupture in the fabric of the film, which suddenly fades to black, ushering in a jagged montage sequence for the opening credits, accompanied by dissonant abrasions of sound. In a violent instant, the buoyant spatiality of these opening scenes gives way to the blind spots, fugitive sightlines and unmappable voids of 70s suburbia – places (to use the lexicon of noir) where the sidewalk ends. It’s a shift from cinematic to televisual coordinates, as Derrickson collapses the stately gaze of his camera to the static between channels, which in his hands becomes a prophecy of our fractured, digital present.
This sets the scene for a serial killer period drama that moves away from the obsessive “mapping” of Zodiac. Whereas Fincher tried to fuse analog and digital naturalism, and the real spaces of the Bay Area with the virtual topography of Zodiac, Derrickson’s opening suggests that there is an incommensurability between these spaces that can never be breached. Instead, he will focus on blind spots, places where suburban sightlines suddenly give way to their opposite, while the most obsessive “mapper” of the film turns out, ironically, to be the Grabber’s brother Max, played by James Ransome. Max has developed a map that traces out the Grabber’s movements, in an early version of forensic geolocation, but that very effort to map the Grabber – that optimism that the Grabber’s virtual spaces can be contained geographically – is what blinds him to the schism of the Grabber being his very own brother.
During the first act of the film, Derrickson largely focuses on characterising this massive swathe of space around children as both liberating and terrifying, suffusing it with a queasy volatility that makes the Grabber feel ever-present. Adults are always at a remote distance, and kids are nearly always alone in the frame. In one scene, Finn watches a horror film on television at night, and looks around for reassurance from his father (Jeremy Davies), only to realise that he has fallen into a drunken stupor in the kitchen. Derrickson then cuts to later that same night, when Finn has also fallen asleep, in front of the television, with the after-hours signal glowing in the background. As with Channel Zero, the unsupervised spaces around kids lead naturally to unsupervised television watching, much as the glitchy channel-switching of television evokes the blind spots of those spaces in a particularly pointed way.
Without adults, these mise-en-scenes take on a peculiar emptiness, turning The Black Phone into a testament to the drama of being a child, and the resilience of being a child, at a time when adults were completely remote. It’s the same vision of vulnerability that Stranger Things is going for, but rendered with more rigour here, as well as a more vivid sense of space – specifically, the plastic sense of space that resonates when you’re young. Derrickson’s camera angles and movements both emphasise thresholds and boundaries, and how easily they’re traversed, especially in the archetypal activity of this first act – walking to and from school, past chain-link fences that hem in properties a little too neatly to be really plausible.
With no adults in the frame, there’s also no regulation of adults and children, producing a strangely unformed space that brims with volatility and violence. This makes kids especially vulnerable to other kids, producing a series of extraordinarily violent fights scenes between children who can’t be more than twelve or thirteen years old. Most of these scenes occur right down on the ground, as if to emphasise and dramatize the sheer sprawl of space around these kids. At the same time, the lack of adults also means that when adults and children do come together, it’s with a frank and startling anatagonism, whether in the violence with which Gwen, Finn’s sister, played by Madeleine McGraw, is beaten by her father, or the hatred with which she addresses the police, her school principal, and even Jesus when she prays to him.
In other words, freedom here is a kind of constriction – the more space that children have to explore, the more they’re trapped in an undifferentiated zone that leaves them vulnerable to adults and other children. Like the slasher, the Grabber both ruptures and over-identifies with this suburban system, by revealing that total spatial autonomy is itself a kind of imprisonment. On the one hand, the Grabber emerges as an embodiment of this strange emptiness around children, this absence of proper parents, teachers and police officers. In Finn’s world, all it takes is a few beats, a few shifts, for a child to be utterly alone – those mercurial moments when people peel away, which Derrickson emphasises by setting so many scenes on the walk to and from school. Just before Finn is abducted, Derrickson marks these peels through a series of fading figures, all within the same frame, that leave him suddenly and starkly alone.
Similarly, the Grabber is essentially faceless – he’s wearing a mask when we first meet him, dons a different combination of masks from that point on, and even then appears more as a shadow. He’s a walking embodiment of the sudden fades, the spatial schisms, that announce his appearance, which he manifests as the bundle of black balloons he uses to smother his victims into the back of his black truck, as if vanishing them into thin air, or effecting a fade in real space and time. Conversely, Finn hits back with a toy rocket, a residue of that buoyant space in the pre-credit sequence, which he uses to puncture several of these balloons, and then cut the Grabber, something that his other abductees apparently weren’t able to achieve.
Yet while the Grabber may emerge from these blind spots, he’s also the first adult who attempts to regular space. In fact, this is precisely what makes him uncanny – unlike absent parents, police and teachers, he doesn’t allow the children in his “care” to wander at will. His first steps are the most drastic – he bundles Finn into the back of his car, and then imprisons him in a basement. From then on, however, he works on building habits, such as leaving the basement door open, but making it tacitly known that he is waiting in the kitchen with a belt to lash Finn if he crosses the threshold, in a haunted echo of his own physically abusive father. The Grabber has no clear agenda beyond this radical spatial constriction and, after a while, exists mainly as a shadow or silhouette at the threshold of doors. Finn first meets him at the door to his van, gets to know him at the door to the basement, and comes to understand him at the door to the kitchen, where he sits and waits alone in his primal pose – shirtless, masked, holding a belt – like a monstrous man of the house, a gatekeeper for all the borders that remain unregulated by the adults (especially the parents) that we have seen during the film.
After a while, the Grabber further reveals his pathology as a game of parental discipline – “naughty boy” – in which he encourages his victims to expand their spatial horizons so that he can recircumscribe them. Finn gradually intuits that the Grabber has allowed each victim to get a little further out, like a parent who has relaxed a little with each new child, or with each new year in a child’s life, meaning that Finn has the strongest shot at autonomy so far, as the Grabber often reminds him. Leaving the basement door open is just the start, since the Grabber leaves Finn the equipment he needs to build a tunnel, and the objects he needs to climb up to the basement window, before finally allowing him to escape into the neighbouring streets, so that he can pursue him and wrestle him to ground, splitting the difference between the adult-child and child-child altercations that defined this sprawling space in the first act.
So far, this is a naturalistic, if somewhat haunting setup. But the sheer emptiness and availability of space around children quickly invests it with a power that Derrickson frames in two ways: magically and virtually. We first glimpse this magical power at the start of the film, when Gwen, Finn’s sister, has a series of dreams about the Grabber that turn out to yield facts only known to the police. Then, when Finn is imprisoned, a black phone attached to the wall of the cell starts to ring, providing him with access to the Grabber’s previous victims, who offer advice from some misty netherworld. Over the second act, these situations converge, as Gwen tries to “dream” Finn’s location, and Finn uses the magic phone to plan his escape.
Gwen’s dreams and Finn’s phone simultaneously provide access to a nascent virtual space. As the final generation before widespread arcade games, the first gaming consoles, and early home computers, they’re on the cusp of a new virtual world, but don’t quite have the infrastructure or vocabulary for it yet. The closest we come to this world, in the realistic spaces of the film, is the montage of phones ringing, and the montage of porch lights coming on, after the Grabber takes his victims. Both the dream and black phone tap into this energy, while leaning into the more buoyant spatiality we saw in the pre-credit sequence. Bruce, the first person who was taken, is one of the last people to contact Finn by phone, and repeats the phrase he uttered at the baseball game – “your arm is a mint” – reminding Finn that he has the capacity to produce an arc that soars every bit as freely as the home run he conceded. More generally, the black phone creates a network of victims, all connected by a dial-up glitch, that turns the cell into a chat room, and reveals significant information scrawled on its walls.
In this light, Gwen’s dreams are less supernatural revelations than the collective nightmares of 70s children, attempts to process the blind spots that contoured the massive spaces afforded to them. As such, Gwen’s climactic dream returns us to the schism between natural and virtual space, clear sightlines and blind spots, that ushered in the opening credits. This dream also marks our first glimpse of networked entertainment, in the form of a pinball machine that produces the most brutal fight of the film – so strong that each punch shatters the image into its glitchy digital double, and then back again, as Derrickson reinscribes the shift from pre-credit smoothness to credit sequence glitch into the same frame. Gwen then follows the winner of the fight into a car, where she finally links up with the black phone, via a radio, as the driver pulls up at an old house. She assumes this is the Grabber’s house, and informs the police accordingly, but in one final twist, this is actually the house across the road from the Grabber, although he also owns it, and buries his victims here once he’s killed them.
The shift from pre-credit clarity to credit sequence abrasion is now finally framed as two discrete structures – the Grabber’s normal house, where he keeps his live victims in the basement, and the Grabber’s double house, where he buries his victims in the basement. One house is furnished, the other is unfurnished; one house conforms to the naturalistic sightlines of the film, and the other house, only glimpsed in Gwen’s dream, is a blind spot, a glitchy televisual proto-digital fiction that looks exactly like the first Super 8 recording in Sinister. Both houses, however, are connected by the black phone, which accordingly becomes both more of a networked node and more of a physical object during the climactic scene, when Finn finally talks to Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), the last victim to be taken, and the only one he knew. Not only were Finn and Robin friends, but Robin was the only person who tried to protect Finn’s passage through space, by sticking up for him against a gang of bullies who tried to make him use the girl’s bathroom. As the last bastion standing between Finn and the blind spots of the film, Robin makes the phone resonate as a network more than ever before.
At the same time, Robin’s advice to Finn is to transform the phone into an object – to pack it with as much dirt as possible and then use it to batter the Grabber to death. Placing the rocket, still stained with the Grabber’s blood, on top of the phone as a talisman, Finn follows Robin’s command, and ends by strangling the Grabber with the wire as well, while holding the receiver to his ear so that he can hear the voices of the victims that he will be soon joining. In this moment, the phone pivots between a real and supernatural object, an isolated and networked object, evoking the leap of imagination, the burst of magical thinking, that children needed to navigate the enormous spaces around them in the 70s, both practically and ideationally. Finn also has to harness the primal violence and volatility that has percolated out between adults and children, setting a trap in the floor so that the Grabber falls down to his level, where he can reprise the many brutal fights of the film at his level, on his own terms.
For a brief moment, this resets the space of the film, and allows the detectives, who are investigating the house across the road, to bridge the gap between 70s suburbia and its blind spots, as Finn finally emerges from the Grabber’s grasp. Similarly, when Finn’s father arrives at the scene, he hugs him with a grip that conveys remorse for all his past actions. Yet the enduring notes of the film come from Finn’s reunion with other children – first, with the voice of Robin, who promises to watch him his whole life, because “a man never leaves his friends behind”; then, from Gwen, who meets him on the threshold of the Grabber’s main house, as her dreams link up with the black phone; and finally, with Donna, his crush, played by Rebecca Clarke, in an eerily upbeat epilogue. As we move from the melancholy of Robin, to the catharsis of Gwen, to the playfulness of Donna, and the music segues into a feel-good rock register, Derrickson confirms that adults are not going to return to the fray, at least not for this generation, offering us (and them) this strange spectrum between horror and resilience, between normality and the blind spots that fissure it, as the drama of being a child in the 70s.
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