As more and more Hollywood films go “woke,” The Black Phone is a breath of fresh air. The well-crafted multi-genre horror film is also perhaps the year’s first bonafide sleeper. The small budget film has grossed over $100 million at the box office before going into streaming.
Crafting a Tight Well-told Story
Writer-director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Dr. Strange) crafts a tight, well-told story while drawing on themes far more subtle and complex than its horror genre implies. The plot is an unpretentious film, smartly fitted within the horror genre. Based on a short story of the same name, Derrickson artfully mixes horror, coming of age, suspense, and… Christian spirituality.
Set in the late 1970s near Denver, Colorado, a serial killer nicknamed “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke) is snatching kids off the street. They never re-appear, and are presumably killed. The abductions seem random; the connections between the kids seem tenuous. When bullied and tormented teenager Finney (Mason Thames) is snatched, his willful sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is distraught. They have a close bond growing up in a single household with an abusive, alcoholic father.
A Serious Christian Spiritual Journey
But Gwen carries her own burden. She is tormented by dreams which foretell bad deeds, including visions of The Grabber. She prays to Jesus to help her sort them out and show her a path. But Jesus doesn’t seem to respond.
Or does he?
The Black Phone proceeds, in many ways, like a conventional horror film. (My more secular take on this film can be found here.) The main plot focuses on Finney’s transformation from a deceptively meek teenager to a confident person willing to stand up for himself in the face of an existential threat. He has to discover who he is, using all the tools available, to save himself from what will become certain death.
However, Gwen’s journey is equally important if less obvious to the audience. As Finney faces terror and death in a soundproof basement, she implores Jesus to help her even though she knows that’s not what he usually does. He doesn’t intervene in daily life. But Gwen believes she “needs him” to save Finney. So she prays.
Gwen’s struggle with her faith is as existential as Finney’s desperate attempts to save himself. Jesus doesn’t seem to respond even as her dreams become more vivid.
Existential Spiritual Personal Struggles
These existential spiritual struggles are critical to the plot and its ultimate outcome. Fortunately, The Black Phone never veers into fantasy or the fantastical. While mysticism is clearly present, Gwen’s dreams are not so distant or otherworldly that they are implausible. The spiritual mysticism doesn’t overwhelm the plot or Gwen’s character development.
The Black Phone Takes Faith Seriously
Derrickson’s movie takes faith seriously. He uses the tropes of the horror genre to take the story to new levels through its exploration of spiritual identity and faith that have always been central to the human experience.
But the movie is also a Christian film, exploring questions of practical faith, including spiritual identity, free will, redemption, grace, and forgiveness. The proficiency of Derrickson’s narrative is that audiences are drawn into these themes incrementally over the course of the film. They may not be fully aware of their presence until they are revealed in the closing minutes.
Even without the Christian theme, however, The Black Phone is a well crafted, well executed, well acted, and entertaining mixed-genre horror film.