Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Black Phone (2021).

What's the best way to tell a Horror story?  It's a question I haven't asked before, thought it's probably something that a lot of hard core enthusiasts of the genre might wonder about.  I think I should clarify here that when I bring this up this idea, I'm not asking what is the best work of fiction ever written within the Horror genre.  Nor am I trying to set down anything like a definitive "method" by which all such works must be composed.  That kind of notion is easily disproven by common, everyday creative practice.  Instead, I guess what I'm really concerned with is trying to figure out at what point does the Tale of Terror stop being effective, and risk the danger of drifting into the realms of, maybe not the unbearable or purely tasteless.  Gothic fiction, after all, is the kind genre that sort of relies on a sense of bad taste in order to get its effect across.  As Stephen King points out in his near text-book quality study, Danse Macabre: "The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.

"Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing - we hope - our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character.  It is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentlemen, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition...but perhaps most frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave dweller (4)".  King then asks a very important question.  "Is horror art?  On this second level, the work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points.  The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed one but you knew of - as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out.  The Stranger makes us nervous...but we love to try on his face in secret (ibid)".  It helps to notice where King is going with this particular notion of his.

As I've said above, he's not about to dictate what the writer of modern Gothic fiction can or should write.  However, I think it is possible to claim that what he does with Danse Macabre as a whole is to plant a flag, of sorts.  The whole study text serves as an illustration of what the Horror story is like at its best.  This is what King seems to mean by saying that the genre can achieve a level of artfulness that is often denied by the mainstream critics, even to this very day, after all the years since Macabre was published.  A lot of it is down to pure snobbery.  Even at it's best, the Terror Tale is always going to be the black sheep of genre fiction.  Another reason for it, however, might be down to a sense of unnecessary overindulgence.  Here's what I mean.  For the longest time now, I've been convinced that the worst thing to ever happen to the Horror genre was also its greatest moment of triumph.  The genre experienced a kind of mixed blessing renaissance during the 1980s.  It was something that happened in the wake of a string of blockbuster performances at the box office during the 60s and 70s.  It started with Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960, and John Carpenter's Halloween is what took it all mainstream.

The success of Michael Myer's big screen debut seems to have been the film that let the genie out of the bottle.  It was the key that opened the doorway for the genre boom of the 80s.  In retrospect, it's success at the box-office was enough to prove to movie studios (mainly the independents, thought some of the major also took a kind of sideline interest) that Horror was a bankable commodity.  Hence you've got the genre explosion that has since become one of the defining features of the Brat Pack era.  I've called it a mixed blessing, however.  A lot of the reason for that is because while it's true, in a sense, that Horror had arrived in a big way.  The catch was that this arrival probably always came with a price tag that no one ever paid perhaps as much attention to as they should have.  In their eagerness to carve out a name for themselves in this newly opened playing field, the majority of Horror film creators sort of wound up tripping themselves up on the banner of creative excess.  This is where the problem sets in.

When most people think of 80s Horror, the two names that come to mind are always the same: Freddy and Jason.  For better or worse, they've become the twin poster boys for that decade, and my concern is that this is what most audiences think of whenever they even hear the word Horror.  If that's the case, then I'm afraid the vast majority of filmmakers did the genre a disservice in that decade.  By letting Fred and Jay become the de facto "faces" of the genre, they've saddled the Weird Tale with a reputation which it probably doesn't deserve.  It should also go without saying that each of them doesn't even begin to exhaust the creative potential the what good Tale of Terror can do.  Not by a long shot.

The trouble is that if a lot of the makers of the Cinema of Frights during the "Morning in America" years indulged in all kinds of excesses (by which I mean drowning the screen in as much fake blood and rubber and/or plastic guts as the budget will allow) and so the trouble begins to set in when this is all that the filmmaker can focus on in terms of any larger point to the story.  My own experience has been that the more the director keeps training the camera on the grue and viscera, the more obvious it becomes that their efforts at going for excess is pretty much telegraphing their own poverty of invention.  If you go too far in that direction, what you risk happening is audiences walking out on you.  The irony here lies in the reasons for why you'd start to loose customers.  It's not for the reason you might think.  They're not walking out thinking, "This is too much, I just can't take so much gross out, etc".  Instead, the real thinking behind the dwindling box-office return is more along the lines of, "Give me a break!  This is so damned ridiculous.  How can anyone ever think this is scary?  It's the most laughable thing I've ever seen".  This, then, is the complete irony at the heart of most 80s Horror films.

By letting excess become sort of like the unofficial, guiding principle of the day, it seems to have created a license for creative laziness.  This in turn lead to the mistaken notion that the buckets of stage blood will be enough to carry the day.  If things look like they're lagging, just toss a bit of gross out at the screen.  It doesn't matter how much.  People just tend to eat this stuff up, anyway, right?  The trouble is such a mindset totally underestimates the audience, it seems.  Horror in general appears to remain the most difficult of genres to get into, even at the best of times.  It always requires greater leaps of imaginative sympathy than what is required of other storytelling formats.  Even with this fact in mind, the one thing most audiences tend to agree on is that gore never seems to work all that much unless there is a good point to it, and even then, it only seems to work without the principle of excess.  This is how come, while I can't write off all the examples of 80s Horror, a lot of it is just overrated.

Don't get me wrong, there were and are plenty of examples from that decade of the Gothic genre firing on all cylendars up on the screen.  The trick here is that there's what has to be described as a shared reason for why the best examples work so well, even as most of them diverge in terms of plot, pacing, and overall dramatic approach.  What separates a work like Joe Dante's Gremlins from a myriad of Friday the 13th clones is that Dante is the kind of artist who takes greater care of how he handles the titular horrors at the core of his story.  He knows not just when to bring the proper note of Terror on-stage.  The director is also careful not to overplay his hand.  Dante seems to realize that less is always more, even when the subject matter is a Jim Henson Muppet from hell being roasted alive in a microwave.  While I don't think it's possible to point to Dante's efforts and claim it as any kind of gold standard.  It does seem reasonable to cite it as a good workman's sample of the difference between excess and one of many best possible examples of the right display of the art of fear.  Whereas someone like Wes Craven is content with relying on showing his villain walking around in a bloody ambulance bag, Dante first gives his horrors a legit build-up so that we know the moment of shock is coming.

Then, when it comes time to give his creature the proper introduction, Dante has set things up to the point that the big reveal has a greater sense of dramatic impact.  Seeing the mother in Gremlins come upon the first major specimen of the film's title works on not just an artistic but also something of a genuine thematic level.  To borrow King's own terminology, Dante has managed to hit several targets, or phobic pressure points at once.  First, the family home twisted from a place of warmth and comfort into a de facto hunting ground for dangerous animals.  Second, is the more elemental level of threat.  Will the monster be bested, or will it feed?  The third level is what gives the Terror of the scene its necessary sense of thematic weight.  The only reason the gremlin is there at all is because the Horror of the story was invited in.  Sheer human fallibility is what has turned a human place into a den for inhuman monsters.  While offering up some of the most famous moments of fright in the history of cinema, it's that final level of thematic depth that elevates the Terror into the realm of literary art.

This is what King was talking about when he discussed the best possible artistic levels of the Gothic genre.  It's a lesson the writer appears to have learned over the course of a long apprenticeship of trial and error.  The best place to look into how King made himself into a writer is to pick up a copy of his still essential autobiographical, how-to manual, On Writing.  The question lingering over all of this background context is what does any of this have to do with a recent Horror film that was released just two years and a half ago (at leas as of this writing)?  The answer is I brought up all this context because I'm hoping to show the reader just how a film like The Black Phone works as an example of Horror done right.  One of the best surprises about it is how it almost fits in well with the best examples of Gothic fiction that 80s cinema had to offer.  The trick here is that in order to demonstrate this idea, the audience will have to learn to look beyond the Freddy-Jason splatter-fest style of storytelling, and see if it is at all possible to arrive at an appreciation for a more artistic style of Gothic storytelling.

In order to see if this is possible, I've chosen to take a look at the kind of Horror film that might have been made under the Spielbergian lens of 80s supernatural fantasy.  It has a bit in common with films like Gremlins, while at the same time telling it's own narrative.  Perhaps its also somewhat fitting that it was initially written by King's own biological son, Gothic writer Joe Hill.  So why not join in and let's unpack what has to be one of the best sleeper hits of recent years, by answering The Black Phone?

The Story.

Good evening, Colorado.  And here once more is the news.  Our top story tonight is sadly a familiar one to all of us by now.  Police officials have alerted all local law enforcement officers of the disappearance of 13 year old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) from his neighborhood today, sometime just past 3:00 PM, this afternoon.  Shaw is registered as a student at the (Name Withheld) High School District.  All credible eyewitness reports suggest the young man had just left school for the day, and was on his way home.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be a destination he never reached.  Initial thoughts were that Shaw might have run away from home, as both he and his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) each lived in an abusive household.  The children's father, Terrence Shaw (Jeremy Davies), was well known to suffer from a drinking problem, and it has been rumored around the neighborhood that Mr. Shaw would turn his hands against his children whenever his drinking got out of control.

Further investigation, however, confirmed to the police that rather than lighting out on his own, Mr. Shaw's son was in fact most likely the latest victim in a troubling string of disappearances that have rocked the Denver area for the past few months this year, and which continue to cast a shadow of fear and tragedy over the local communities.  Finney Shaw's disappearance marks him as the sixth possible victim of an assailant that newspapers have dubbed as "The Grabber" (Ethan Hawk).  Law enforcement as yet have no visual confirmation, and just a handful of clues, or potential leads to this individual.  A few possible witnesses have spoken of seeing an unmarked black van in the areas where the Grabber is believed to have struck.  However, no usable evidence has been uncovered that would verify these accounts.  Finney Shaw's disappearance has added his name to a list of missing persons, all of them early to pre-teens who are all at or about the same age.  The list includes Griffin Stagg (Banks Repeta), the boy who was later pegged as the first victim in the Grabber's crime spree.  Others included are:

Billy Showalter (Jacob Moran), a local paperboy whose part time occupation serves as one of the few, identifiable links between all of the other victims.  Showalter's delivery route seems to have taken him past or through the same streets where all of the rest of the victims came from.  This includes the residence of Vance Hopper (Brady Hepner), an area juvenile delinquent who was no stranger to the police before his sudden disappearance.  This has caused some debate as to whether Hopper counts as a proper victim of the Grabber's exploits, when there could always be a more mundane explanation for his missing whereabouts.  Hopper (nicknamed "Pinball" by his few friends) had worked up a considerable enough rap sheet with a number of police at the county Sheriff's office that the idea of simply pulling up roots, and moving away might have been the safest option.  Beyond this, however, Hopper's whereabouts remain unknown.  The two final entries on the list are the most recent, and somewhat interrelated.  Bruce Yamada (Tristan Pravong) and Robin Arellano (Miguel Cazarez Mora) are notable for their indirect connections to the latest supposed victim of the kidnapping spree.

Both Yamada and Arellano were classmates of Finney Shaw.  While the three students do not appear to have ever been close friends, they are reported as being seen together off and on, with Yamada even belonging to a rival children's baseball league, whose team once squared off against the same group that Shaw served on at school, the (Team Name Withheld).  The disappearances of both students (first Yamada, then Arellano) happened in quick, rapid succession of each other.  This had initially led to worried speculation among law enforcement officials that the culprit has stepped up his game.  The possible abduction of Finney Shaw, coming so soon off the vanishings of his two classmates seem to have confirmed those fears.  As of now, the single thread that ties together all of these occurrences appears to be the bike route of Billy Showalter, which was able to weave its way in and out of all of the alleged victims streets, houses, and lives.  However, police remain unable to determine the kidnapper's exact location based on this information alone.  And so the desperate search for answers continues.

As of now, Denver county detectives Edgar Wright (E. Roger Mitchell) and Jonathan Miller (Troy Rudeseal) have released an official statement asking for any citizens with possible information relevant to the case report it as soon as possible.  With that said, hope is starting to dwindle for the victim's prospects, or even whether the young boy is still currently alive.  All anyone can do is hope.  Up next, the travails of the Boston Red Sox.  Right here on Channel 19, the best news East of the Rockies.

The King Family Universe, its Cinematic History, and its Narrative Parameters.

I'm not going to lie.  This one was like a breath of fresh air.  Perhaps it's more accurate to say that it was like finding your way back to one of those favorite neighborhoods you used to frequent as a kid, and were able to discover that not only is it all still pretty much the same, it also still manages to have this same, inner vital quality to it.  A power which hasn't been dimmed by the passage of years.  Saying that you like a film, however, isn't the same as explaining why you think it works.  The good news about a film like The Black Phone is it's the kind of story which also serves as a treasure chest, of sorts.  There's a lot to unpack in a narrative like this.  So I think it's best to start out with a few ground rules for how I judge this kind of film in general, before moving on to a consideration of the particulars.

Let me start out by saying that I've always had this quirky, off-centered relationship with films like this.  I'm not talking about just any Horror film in general, either (though what I'm about to say next applies just as well to the vast majority of entries in this always peculiar genre).  Instead, I mean that I've always had this curious history with the films of Stephen King and his family.  It's a qualification that's important.  Not just because the ultimate creator behind this movie is King's own son.  It's also because Scott Derrickson, the director of this vehicle has done a masterful job at preserving the original voice of the narrative.  It's a way of speaking that shares a great deal in common with works like Salem's Lot or Misery.  It's also no great shock to discover that the setting of this narrative reads like it could easily blend in to the same universe where vampires can haunt the ruins of an abandoned town, the bogeyman can lurk anywhere in the sewers, and antique cars can take on a monstrous life of their own.  The sense of identification that exists between fiction of Joe Hill and that of his Dad is so strong that it makes sense to claim that one day, the son will probably one day take up where King leaves off.

It makes sense, in other words, to see Joe Hill as something of a natural inheritor of the secondary worlds first ploughed and then brought to life by his old man.  If King is the one who created this grand edifice with his initial stories, one day Hill will most likely be the one to become the future lord of the manor.  If there's any truth to these surmises, then the good news is the future of the King Family Universe couldn't be in better hands.  Hill is not just a chip off the old block, he's also an accomplished wordslinger in his own write.  The Black Phone and its adaptation is just one case in point.  It's a movie that stands on its own two feet, while at the same time telegraphing its shared continuity with a lot of his father's older works.  This is all stuff worth diving into.  However, before discussing any of this, the point I'm driving toward at the moment is that the history I have with these two has been peculiar in a very particular way.  Stephen King has had something of  rocky relationship when it comes to the adaptations of his movies.  Most of them are seen as either lackluster, or else they don't do justice.

Only a handful of films like Kubrick's The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile are cited as anything approaching some vaunted level of high quality.  The rest are just dismissed as crap.  Without denying the obvious skill of a film like Green Mile, however, I've always been the odd man out when it comes to such a consensus opinion.  Not only do I find myself with a genuine liking for the vast majority of these page to screen attempts.  I even find myself willing to claim that a lot of these obvious B-picture movies have a great deal of authentic, artistic merit that is worth defending.  I'd also claim that even the films of Mick Garris deserve a full, respectful critical excavation with pick and shovel.  That's a very puzzling stance to take, even in this day and age.  It's a critical perspective that I've taken flack for in the past, and have even gotten caught in some debate over, here and there.  The good news is that all of this remained cordial and collegiate, with no bitterness to go around.  And still, the puzzlement remains.  How can one say anything good about a cheese fest like 1985's Cat's Eye?

Well, I think here is where King himself can help us begin to frame at least the start of a full, ongoing answer to that question.  In the pages of Danse Macabre, King offers his readers a useful insight, almost a kind of rubric which can help in the judgment of a work of Horror fiction.  This is something that is meant to apply to the cinema of scares in general, however I'd argue this includes written works of Terror just as well.  It also serves as useful description of the kind of adaptations that have been made out of King's work over the years.  In his book, the writer claims that "If you're a genuine horror fan, you develop the same sort of sophistication that a follower of the ballet develops; you get a feeling for the depth and texture of the genre.  Your ear develops with your eye, and the sound of quality always comes through the keen ear.  There is fine Waterford crystal, which rings delicately when struck, no matter how thick and chunky it may look; and then there are Flintstone jelly glasses.  You can can drink your Dom Perignon out of either one, but friends, there is a difference (150)".  I think King has done me a bit of a service in focusing on the hearing more than the quality of display in Horror cinema.

It's a judgment call that asks the viewer to try and see if they can bypass, for just a moment what they may think their eyes are telling them in favor of trying to zero in on what the writing is really saying.  It's something I'll have to be grateful for, because it now means I have some genuine backup for all the supposed lapses in taste I could be accused of.  It means films like Mick Garris's The Shining, or Tim Curry's version of It can be allowed a set of artistic principals which grants them a voice at what would otherwise be a very closed table.  When it comes to Horror in general, King flat out tells his audience that it's a best idea to let the nature of the writing be the true marker of quality in any given work.  This is a maxim I'm willing to take further and say that it's probably a good rule of thumb for all creative storytelling, regardless of whatever the genre may be.  King's thoughts on the issue are still a useful guidepost for the Horror genre in particular.  For instance, what he says next could count as a good marker by which to judge not just other Fright films, but those based specifically on his books.

"There are no "big moments," such as Linda Blair puking pea soup on Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist...or James Brolin dreaming that he is axing his family to death in The Amityville Horror.  But as (one critic) points out, a person who loves the genre's genuine Waterford (and there isn't enough of it...but then, there never is enough of the good stuff in any fields, is there?) finds a great deal happening in" hidden gems such as Riding the Bullet "- that delicate ring of the real stuff is there, it can be perceived".  Or at least this is a possibility, if you've enough imagination that allows you to enjoy such works.  If that's ever the case, then, "The ear detects that true ringing sound, and the heart responds.

"I said all of that to say this: that the opposite also applies.  The ear which is constantly attuned to the "fine" sound - the decorous strains of chamber music, for instance - may hear nothing but horrid cacophony when exposed to bluegrass fiddle...but bluegrass is mighty fine music all that same.  The point is that the fan of movies in general and horror movies in particular may find it easy - too easy - to overlook the crude charms of" a mini-series like Rose Red after experiencing films like It Follows.  However, "(in) a real appreciation of horror films, a taste for junk food applies...For now, let it suffice to say that the fan loses his taste for junk food at his or her own peril, and when I hear by way of the grapevine audiences are laughing at a horror movie, I rush out to see it.  In most cases I am disappointed, but every now and then I hear me some mighty good bluegrass fiddle (151)".  If King has to be stuck playing fiddler to the cello or aeolian harp as performed by guys like Hitchcock, or John Carpenter, that's fine by me, just so long as his own "creepshows" can have a place at the table.

Conclusion: A Possible Future Classic?

This just leaves us with the really important questions we came here to ask.  Is a movie like The Black Phone any good?  And if the answer is yes, then why is that the case?  What is it about the inner watch work of this film that makes it tick so well?  Once more, I think Joe Hill's Dad can come to our rescue in answering all these inquiries.  According to King, most Horror films are a combination of "text and subtext".  For the writer of Carrie (where the most notable sight is of the title character getting drenched in a bucket of pig's blood), any promise that the work of Terror may have will have to rest in "the concept of value - of art, or social merit.  If horror movies have redeeming social merit, it is because of that ability to form liaisons between the real and the unreal - to provide subtexts.  And because of their mass appeal, these subtexts are often culture wide (139)".  The interesting part is just how well this rubric applies to his son Joe's own work, and to The Black Phone movie as a whole.

At it's heart, this is a story that combines two themes into a single narrative.  On the one hand, you have the plot of a young boy going through what could be called the ultimate suburban nightmare.  Finney is just trying to survive a turbulent home life, combined with an equally hostile turf in his school experience, when suddenly he finds himself the victim of some random child kidnapper.  At it's core, then, Hill and Derrickson's movie is concerned with the kind of incident that is the stuff of nightmares for any parent who really means that word, as well as being the type of incident that often winds up the topic of evening news stories, as well as just about every amber alert that happens to crop up on your iPhone at random, odd hours.  What's notable about this familiar American nightmare, however, is the way that both the writer and director approach their scenario.  And it's here that the second element of the movies subtext slowly begins to seep into the proceedings, right away at the story's opening.  

Derrickson opens the movie on a deceptive note of cinema veritae.  Framing the camera shots as if the audiences is glimpsing snatches from a series of local area home movies capturing snippets of daily life in the Colorado area.  These moments play out as the opening credits role, slowly immersing us in what sounds like the familiar rhythms of a seemingly ordinary, yet fundamentally troubled slice of life in the suburbs.  Before any true sense of naturalistic realism can set in, however, we are catapulted in the secondary world of Hill's plot, and the narrative takes an immediate left turn into the kind of heightened reality that can only exist in a setting of pure fictional fantasy.  And it's here that the second main ingredient of the film comes into play.  For all the naturalistic trappings that surround the main character, we are clearly being told a fairy tale from opening to closing shot.  Yes, the main character is just an average boy next door type, and while a bare bones description of the movie's the first act makes it sound like he's just this kid trying to deal with average life experiences, the way these elements are written takes the viewer through what amounts to a medieval style fantasy kingdom dressed up in the garb of middle American life in the 1970s as Derrickson and Hill fantasize it, rather than as it was.

The world they are building for their audience is one that consists of kids who are often left to fend for themselves in an environment where it seems, for all intents and purposes, as if either the grown-ups have given up completely, or else they just can't muster the competence necessary to protect all the young charges in their midst.  Now if all this sounds in any way familiar to you, then it is not unreasonable to speculate the possibility that Hill has managed to unearth the same kind of imaginative archetype, or story fossil as the one that his own father struck upon years ago when he had the idea that later grew into the novel It.  Like The Black Phone, It details a world where the adults don't seem to give much of a shit about the very offspring they've helped bring into the world.  This in turn creates a situation that leaves countless sons and daughters at the mercy of a lurking terror that stalks the neighborhoods on a daily basis.  All of these elements find their narrative analogue in Hill's setting.

Now, with all of that said, however, it is perhaps a mistake to take the parallels too far.  Doing so runs the risk of making this story seem, at best, derivative, or at worst, a blatant case of the son stealing from the father for the sake of his own name and career.  The good news is none of these charges hold up, and what allows the film to stand up on its own two feet is the way in which the film's thematic sights and trajectory are less epic and more small scale in terms of its own narrative scope.  If King's It is best described as a symbolic examination of the beginnings of what we now call the Generation Gap that started not long after the Second World War, then Hill and Derrickson's story is less concerned with any of these matters.  Instead, it seems more concerned with what can happen whenever the economic and corresponding social conditions in an Every Town American neighborhood begins to deteriorate.

This is an idea that Derrickson himself was keen to explore, and this is the element that allows hill's narrative to have its own identity.  In interviews with the press, Derrickson has gone on record to say that a lot of elements in the film came from his own experiences of growing up in a working class neighborhood that was slowly turning to shit during the 70s.  This was a personal, early life experience that had been on his mind for sometime when the idea of adapting Hill's story finally landed on his desk.  Before then, Derrickson had been toying with the idea of taking his traumatic childhood, and going the same route as Francois Truffaut did with his days as a kid, and creating his own 400 Blows style project out of it (web).  The difference here seems to be that it was all still too close and painful for the director to deal with in such an immediate, unveiled way.  In that sense, Hill offering him a chance to adapt a short story that first appeared in an anthology entitled 20th Century Ghosts way back in another world known as 2005 was sort of like an accidental, yet very welcome lifeline.

In addition, when the writer and director set out to make their adaptation, they both made the deliberate choice of distancing the premise from that of Stephen King's by making a series of deliberate changes.  This is where Hill came up with the idea of letting his villain be nothing less than a modern day riff on the fantasy trope of the evil wizard.  King's son recalled to Derrickson a bit of trivia he learned about certain magic stage acts that were popular during the 30s and 40s, where the magician would perform an elaborate sort of pantomime pageant play, where the lead performer would double both as himself and the devil over the course of a single performance.  The star would put on the show first as his (or herself), and then would be banished by the devil until the final act where the stage conjurer would banish the evil one back to the pit.  Hill's imagination seized upon this idea, and Derrickson ran with it the moment it was suggested.  As a result, what the writer and director have done by making their antagonist a twisted stage magician is to take the wicked sorcerer of old, and give him an American Gothic stage in which to perform his art.  Think Sauron if he were reduced to flesh and blood.

Also, you would add a few character notes drawn from Norman Bates and real life menaces such as John Wayne Gacy, and the final result of this mixed brew winds up as Ethan Hawk's maniacal child kidnapper.  As brought to life by the former Dead Poet's Society alumnus, the Grabber acts in many ways as the culmination of the various problems that are plaguing the main character and his surroundings.  Mason Thames' Finney is the product of a neighborhood that has seen better days, and appears to be going through a slow state of decay.  Unlike King's Derry, the environment that Hill's protagonist finds himself in is not a prosperous stage set threatened by an outside menace.  Instead, this story is content to examine the themes of the evil that lurks within, and how it can sometimes manifest itself in what is otherwise designed to be a welcoming, family surrounding.  The film seems to imply that such ideals are dependent on certain pre-conditions, and when those supports are taken away, in the words of W.B. Yeats, "the center does not hold".  Once close families start to break apart, parents neglect children, who are then left to devise there own interconnected support system, and the home is no longer a safe haven, but rather turns into or becomes a human place that makes inhuman monsters.

Hence, the implied creation of the Grabber, and insecure life that is Finney's daily existence.  Derrickson has claimed that he wanted to frame all of these elements into what he hoped would be a kind of anti-Spielbergian aesthetic and tone.  The somewhat ironic (if by no means bad) news here is that despite the director's best efforts,  it seems impossible for the film to shake is more idyllic, fairy tale origins.  The story suffers from a chronic inability to totally escape from a sense of genuine nostalgia for a simpler time.  It also probably doesn't help that the film's main villain also just happened to play one of the child hero's in another Joe Dante film, way back in 1985.  To his credit, Derrickson seems to have reached a point where he realized the adaptation would have to rely on this old, Spielbergian element in order to the narrative to do its proper job, and so the director simply leaned into it, got out of the way, and let the story tell itself.  You get the sense that no matter how conflicted the director may have been about these things, the truth seems to have been that Derrickson could never really shake the kind of admiration that most 80s kids have to the entertainment they grew up with.

It also works to the movie's favor in another sense as well.  Because if Derrickson is in any way guarded about his nostalgia, then it's pretty clear that Joe Hill, Stephen King's son, as both an artist and just a former child of those same decades, is unbridled in his enthusiasm and nostalgia for those times, and its clear all of this has wound up in the script.  So the film is left having to capture that sort of classic, Goonies and Gremlins style of storybook suburbia.  Even though it's painted in more faded Autumn shades, and the action is a lot more dire and brutal, you can still tell its the same kind of stomping grounds we've visited before in films like Stand By Me.  Name dropping that earlier film, in particular is a good example of what kind of story Derrickson and Hill are telling here, as well.  The vast majority of what happens in Black Phone is not too far removed from the earlier King adaptation.  In other words, a lot of the shit that the kids get up to is still the same kind of thing that Will Wheaton and River Phoenix would have to encounter and either put up with, or else just plain try to survive in the former, Rob Reiner film.  It's just that now there's an extra added supernatural element to it as well.

With this in mind, the story that Hill has written really does qualify as a modern Suburban Gothic fairy tale of the purest possible kind.  And it's here that the second element of the story comes into play.  Once more, it fits right in with the same artistic perspective that his father talks about in Danse Macabre.  In King's terminology, The Black Phone works as the "sort of horror film that has more in common with the Brothers Grimm than with the op-ed page in a tabloid paper.  It is the B-picture as fairy tale.  This sort of picture doesn't want to score political points but to scare the hell out of us by crossing certain taboo lines.  So if my idea about art is correct (it giveth more than it receiveth), this sort of film is of value to the audience by helping it to better understand what those taboos and fears are, and why it feels so uneasy about them (139)".  I'd argue that Hill's film fits this description largely based off the most basic outline of his story.  The setup of an average young boy being stolen away into a horrific encounter with stranger danger is one of those ideas that is best described as a taboo that everyone is aware of on some basement level of their minds, and so we do the best we can to try and avoid it.

All that Hill's Imagination has done is to take this unsavory potential and turned it into a modern day folktale.  Indeed, the way the plot beats of this story play out on-screen is so familiar in many ways, that it can almost be expressed in that most familiar of story book terms.  "Once upon a time, there was a timid young boy named Finney, who dwelt in a poor village, whose land was located somewhere near the mountains.  One day this boy had a chance encounter with an evil magician who kidnapped Finney, and took him back to his lair.  It was there that the magician revealed he was really the Big Bad Wolf, and that he planned to use the boy as a kind guinea pig for his own twisted, magical experiments".  This quasi-folkloric summary is really the best possible description of the kind aesthetic that Hill's tale is wrapped up in.  It's to Derrickson's credit that he was able to recognize this fairy story element, and give it room to do all the talking it needed.  Without this ballpark to play in, I don't know if the film would have been as good if its voice was smothered in any kind of naturalism.  This is the kind of story that wants, or needs to go on a flight of fancy in order to achieve its effect, and it does so pretty well.

This is not to same thing as claiming the film is all style and no substance, however.  If the tale of Finney and the Evil Wizard is a kind of modern fairy tale, then a lot of what makes it work is the way it has of playing upon a very specific real life fear.  In this regard, the good news is that it never cheapens or under sells the myriad threats implied by act of child abduction.  Indeed, here is where the film shows an admirable sense of restraint, which helps mark it out as a work of higher quality.  It never degenerates into any kind of exploitation.  Instead, once Finney is placed in the Bad Bad Wolf's magic lair, the action maintains a palpable sense of slow building threat.  The potential of violence at the hands of the Grabber is looming and ever present.  The stakes of the situation are neatly laid out in a way that the audience can grasp, without ever quite having its hand held.  You know you're in the hands of a guy who is pretty much a human time bomb waiting to explode and lash out fatally.  However, with these parameters in place, Hill displays these horrors with a skill that is admirable as it is very difficult to pull off.  The writing constantly keeps the terrors of the story walking a fine tightrope at all times.

Finney (and by extension, the viewer) begins to realize the immediate threats he is faced with, while deftly keeping the worst case scenarios as vaguely ill-defined threats that are left lingering just out of sight.  It is a masterful use of a less is more approach, where what the viewer isn't shown winds up being left up to the imagination, thus making it infinitely more frightening than anything we actually do see.  In this way, Hill's narrative is able to thread a delicate needle through a lot of taboo subject matter without exploiting any of it, and yet still keeping the story running on a level of maintained threat that stays strong right up to the denouement.  The thing is therefore an exercise in creativity, like walking a tight rope while trying to spin plates at the same time.  It's to the credit of Hill's skill as a writer that it never comes close to either the plates, the writer, or the story are in danger of falling.

Of course, if all Derrickson and Hill had to offer was just a mere bit of popcorn escapism, then there probably wouldn't be all that much worth commenting about.  Don't get me wrong, escapism will always have its place.  However, the reason that the best fairy tales are able to last as long as they have, throughout multiple centuries and civilizations, and cultural shifts is often because they contain a kernel of thematic value which grants them their ultimate sense of importance and durability.  It also seems to be the case that these themes often contain a sense of permanence, or constant applicability to them.  Looked at from this perspective, Hill's narrative stands as a true definition of the modern fairy tale.  Like many of the classics, it can be boiled down to a simple message about stranger danger.  However, it's to Hill's credit that he never seems content to just leave the material at such a basic level.  Instead, the writer continues to burrow down into the narrative fossil he has uncovered, always trying to excavate further until he has reached the true beating heart of the story.  Once he gets there, the true themes of the tale share an unsurprising relationship with the work of Hill's very own father.

This is because, in many ways, the son could be describe as mining one of the same rich fields like his Dad used to do, and still often does.  Perhaps it therefore makes sense to turn to the words of scholar Tony Magistrale, who even at this late date remains the best critical examiner of the fiction of Stephen King.  Now, the ideas Magistrale is discussing all come from King's work, however, they are also applicable to The Black Phone.  As it turns out that Hill winds up exploring the exact same themes in his own story.  It turns out that both writers share a thematic concern with the dangers that can occur in the wake of the breakdown of the family unit, and the evils that can both lead to, and spring from this disintegration.  As Magistrale explains, 'The breakdown of interpersonal relationships in both the workplace and the family is a recurring element in" both King and Hill's "canon.  

"The very real themes of marital discord, gender antagonism, and workplace alienation are used by supernatural agents in there assault on the human realm.  In spite of the imaginary landscapes which are often the settings for his tales and novels, King" and Hill are "profoundly aware of the discontents and conflicts which are exempla of contemporary American life.  The horrific elements in King's world often emerge through the cracks of societal fragmentation made visible and inescapable.  These breakdowns are either directly responsible for unleashing the irrational forces of the underworld ("Graveyard Shift" and The Shining) or are indirectly reflected in the shape these forces assume (Cujo and The Stand (Landscape of Fear, 31-31)".  In the case of The Black Phone, we seem to be dealing with the latter option, rather than the former, as Magistrale outlines it.  The reader is dealing with a legit tale of the supernatural, and yet it's presence in this story differs from the usual way it is presented in the works of the King family.  Here it emerges in response to a natural threat.  Rather than constituting as the actual and ultimate source of the story's menace, this time it plays the role of guide and helper.

The true danger in Hill's narrative winds up taking the form of a familiar trope that King has described in the pages of Danse Macabre as "Inside Evil".  "The stories of horror which are psychological - those which explore the terrain of the human heart- almost always revolve around the free-will concept; "inside evil" if you will, the sort we have no right lying off on God the Father.  This is Victor Frankenstein creating a living being out of spare parts to satisfy his own hubris, and then compounding his sin by refusing to take the responsibility for what he has done.  It is Dr. Henry Jekyll, who creates Mr. Hyde essentially out of Victorian hypocrisy (64)".  It's also a good description of the villain of Hill's story.  While we are never given anything like a complete backstory on the Grabber, he does hint at least once that the lair where he takes his victims was also the scene of his greatest suffering as child.  

Coupled with the fact that the kidnapper (we never learn his proper name) has an unemployed brother named Max who is currently crashing with him after presumably failing at being able to hold down a job and look after himself, and who is a bit of a high strung coke fiend into the bargain, all point to the Grabber's confession having a good deal to substantiate it.  It all points to a former victim of childhood abuse making the ultimate decision to give into the anger, resentments and frustrations that such mistreatment has created within him.  This, in turn, has led him to not just keep returning back to the scene of his own miseries.  It's also left him with the need to take out the pain and frustration he felt and still experiences from it all out on others.  Hence the reasons Finney and the other boys have slowly gone missing over what seems to be the course of a year, indicating that the Grabber's crime spree has got off to a fairly recent start.  We're dealing then with a villain who has just now given in to the worst impulses literally bread into him through an abusive childhood.  It's with this in mind that it's possible to see what kind of thematic purpose the main character at the heart of Hill's story has to serve.

In many ways, Finney is the exact polar opposite mirror image of the Grabber.  Much like the villain, he comes from a broken and somewhat abusive home.  The key difference between them is the implication that Finney once belonged to a reasonably normal, and more closely knit family unit.  It's true the hero's father is now an emotional train wreck who can't seem to hold his liquor all that well.  However, the main character's backstory details how it was losing his wife to insanity that has driven Finney's dad first to the bottle, then on occasion the use of the belt on his kids.  This is an event that is never shown, and only spoken of, yet it is made clear that this has taken quite a toll on a man who, for all we know, could have been just one of the guys beforehand.  Finney's dad might have always been something of a working class type, yet in turn it's quite possible that, like the Grabber, his own internal breakdown was and is a recent affair brought about by the unfortunate turn his personal life has taken at the moment.  In addition, unlike the Grabber's unseen monster of a father, whose ghost seems to haunt his own son, Finney's dad show's clear signs of remorse for his actions, and he tries to do his best for his kids.

This is yet another area in which the film can be said to triumph in its handling of even the minor side characters.  While Finney's dad doesn't get too much screen time, the script gives just enough hints to allows his actor, Jeremy Davies the chance to show the viewers just how conflicted and tormented he really is.  Indeed, it's the kind of character note that creeps up on you the more the film is revisited.  On my first watch through, I saw him as little more than just another abuser-loser hassle for the film's two main leads to put up with.  It was only on the most recent re-watch made for this article that the full import of the father, and even what might be described as his own subtle, yet effective side arc jumped out at me.  The full import here being that we're dealing with what used to be a good man who has sort of let a recent setback drag him down, and yet who still harbors some genuine love and affection for his kids, and in the end resolves to try and do better for them in the future.  In this way, the story sets him up as yet another doppelganger and foil to the Grabber's own troubled and haunting background.

In much the same way, the film's young lead is perhaps the best possible counterpoint to it's villain.  Much like his father, Finney is growing up in a troubled environment, yet he shows plenty of signs that he and his sister Gwen are capable of coping better with their setbacks than most of their peers, and even some of the adults.  Again, this is a direct contrast to that of the kidnapper.  The very fact that both hero and villain have siblings of their own serves the thematic establishment of light and dark parallels between the two.  In essence, what the story gives us is a pair of opposing principles on a collision course with one another at the insistent, compulsive, and overall deranged instigation of the antagonist.  In fact, the writing seems to hint that it is this clash of twin polar opposite personalities, each of which seems to exemplify some sort of universal principle and its anti-type, which serves to trigger the final ingredient in the make up of Hill's drama, this being the arrival of a series of ghostly visitations.

Now, strange as it may sound, I have heard and read complaints from others saying that often the arrival of the supernatural into a number of King stories has proven enough to take the reader or viewer right out of the narrative.  This has always been a puzzling response to me, when it was always clear that the supernatural element was always meant to function as the main attraction, and pretty much the entire point of the story.  This is a criticism that has been lobbed at more obscure works such as The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon to even The Shining.  The basic ingredients of this complaint all seem to boil down to one element.  A viewer who looks at the vast majority of the King family fiction is reading or viewing the whole thing through a Naturalist lens.  This is fundamentally out of place in a literary collection which is devoted in its entirety to an otherworldly strain of Gothic Romanticism.  The work of King and Hill is devoted to giving the audience a shared secondary world where all the normal laws eventually wind up turned on their head.  Use of supernatural is therefore the entire point in this setup.

In fact, the more I think it over, the more this complaint seems to hinge on just how little or how much tolerance the reader can muster for the full aesthetic contents of the ghost haunted genre of Gothic fiction.  Even outside the King family stories, the work of other authors in the genre is riddled with ethereal specters, and other unnatural creatures whose sole purpose is to stalk the night in pursuit of giving the audience a chance to be taken deliberately outside the "natural" run of things (whatever that's supposed to be).  The Horror's story's purpose is to enchant the audience with hints of realms greater than our own.  This appears to have been the genre's main goal as far back as its ancient beginnings in the mists of antiquity, when some old storytellers realized you could get just as much entertainment by focusing on the element of fear present during encounters with the troll under the bridge as you could with the enchantment of a hero on a quest.  Rather, the same sense of enchantment was still there, it was now just spoken of, and shaded in with a more ominous tone, and a few darker shades of light.

This seems to be what the Horror story is at its very core, and so it always comes off as confusing to me when people try to demand something of it that the genre was never meant to fulfill.  The whole field is about enchantment through the artistic use of Terror.  It doesn't want to be tamed or limited to the natural.  Now this is something that most fans of the genre seem to realize, and for all those folks reading this, I kind of have to apologize for what seems like a digression.  None of this was aimed at any of you, and you're welcome to skip this part.  I am addressing these words now to any who seem to have a peculiar problem with knowing what to do with, or make of the Horror genre's main ingredient.  With all this said, all I can say is this is something the other half of the audience will have to either take or leave as it is.  Horror is a field of the Imagination that is just as intent on reaching for the stars as Fantasy or Science Fiction, and it doesn't make sense to me to try and stifle such a creative impulse.

This is especially true when it comes to a story like The Black Phone.  What makes this film so notable from the vast majority of other times the supernatural has appeared in a King story is that here its appearance is relatively benign; in intent if not always in appearance or method, at least.  What happens is that as Finney finds himself trapped in the Big Bad Wolf's enchanted lair, an old, disused telephone begins to ring, even when its power cord is no longer functioning.  Once he answers the titular phone, our hero is soon put in contact with the haunted and haunting souls of the Grabber's former victims.  Rather than being here to torment the main protagonist as in the case of the Overlook Hotel, the Ghost Boys are instead reaching out to the living in the hopes of ending the evil magician's reign of terror.  It is here that the story's fairy tale qualities are at their height, and full display.  Like I said, whatever problems this type of setup may pose for some viewers all hinges on how much leeway you are willing to give this kind of narrative.  Like Horror in general, Hill's story is designed to reach for the stars.

And in my opinion, it does all of this pretty well.  Without going into any kind of spoiler territory, I will say that my overall impression of this narrative of a modern day Boy Who Cried Wolf and the Evil Shape-Shifting Sorcerer is one that had me grinning with excitement from beginning to end.  In fact, when the opening credits started to role, I was already starting to get incredibly good vibes about this one.  My immediate impression was that I was in good hands.  The director seemed to have a knack for understanding the particular type of story that the father and son King team specializes in, and he was treating the material like a genuine fan would.  In fact, as the credits rolled, I just kept thinking to myself, "Yeah, alright, go with this and run with it".  Or words to that effect.  In case you still couldn't tell, I tended to have an absolute blast with this movie.  Here's just a handful of final impressions.

For one, I think my biggest take away is just how refreshing it was to get another solid King family adaptation after what turns out to have been something of a dry spell.  The last time I can recall having this much fun was probably way back in 2007, with the twin releases of King's attempt at translating a Danish TV series Riget to our own shores as Kingdom Hospital, followed by more straightforward takes on two of his own stories, Desperation and Riding the Bullet.  Ever since then, however, it's been kind of a dry century, and watching Derrickson's film was a good way to recapture a lot of all that.

It's success seems to be down to two intertwined strengths.  First, it manages to capture the shared narrative voice that marks out the kind of particular style of King and Hill's fiction.  It's one of those crucial, and therefore often overlooked skills when it comes to the art of adaptation.  The good news is Derrickson is the kind of professional who knows what it takes to capture this literary quality on film.  The entire style and aesthetic of that voice can often be crude, and sometimes downright brutal in places.  However, what needs to be remembered is that neither King nor his son is ever interested at all in letting mere violence be the heart or engine that powers their stories.  Like his dad, Hill is smart enough as a writer to realize that the work of Horror can never entirely exist for its own sake.  What I mean is the violence, shock, and scares of great Gothic fiction are never the whole point of the story.  This is something that the vast majority of filmmakers seemed to have lost sight of way back in the 1980s.  The inevitable result was the mindless hack and slash school reputation that the genre has regrettably been saddled with.  It's an old shame that it's been trying to shake off ever since.

I'm even willing to go so far and claim that this is something King and Hill recognize, and have been trying to assist with throughout their careers.  Part of their goals as writers seems to have always been a an unspoken dedication to helping the genre raise its game.  To show both audiences, and their fellow practitioners in fear that the tale of Terror has resources within it that will allow even the most pulpish concept of trying to spend a night or two in a haunted house can be elevated to levels of pure, genuine literary art.  It's this second quality of raising schlock into art that is the final ingredient that makes Derrickson's adaptation work as well as it does.  On the surface level, we're dealing with little else except a fairy tale for adults.  At the level of thematic symbolism, however, what we've got is a story of "redeeming social merit", as King has said.  At it's heart Hill's story seems to be concerned with the sense that the safety of any human life (to say nothing of one's own sanity) is often dependent on the communal, maybe even existential bonds that help glue a workable living existence together.

With this in mind, the story seems to hint that it's up to us as fellow microcosms to work together to see if we can't strengthen the bonds that unite each to the other.  Only that way, the narrative implies, can we hope to avoid turning further human beings into inhuman monsters.  Peel away all the layers of Hill's fiction, then, and all that's left is nothing except a simple plea for a greater sense of shared ethical responsibility, one that can stretch from the microcosmic stage of Finney and his own, troubled neighborhood, and out into the larger macrocosm of the audience, and the world we've got to share.  All that might sound simplistic on the face of it, yet I don't think this should come as all that big a surprise.  In the first place, it's not like we're dealing with a novel such as War and Peace here.  Hill isn't trying to become the next John Updike, or anything like that.  At the same time, this is not to say that what he's writing isn't art.  Merely that sometimes the best fiction relies on the simplest, even the most universal of thematic notions.  Going back once more to Danse Macabre, it's just like King says: "These "areas of unease" - the political-social-cultural and those of the more mythic, fairy-tale variety have a tendency to overlap, of course; a good horror picture will put the pressure on as many points as it can (142)".

I think this is something that The Black Phone is able to succeed at very well.  It might even be the best compliment that anyone can pay it.  All of which is to leave off by saying that this comes as a very easy recommendation for me.  It's a fairy tale for adults with a serious yet very fun edge to it.  In fact, I do wonder if it might be possible to utilize a film like this in helping newcomers gain an appreciation for the genre of things that go bump in the night.  For the more squeamish initiates I suggest starting out small, with movies such as Lewis Teague's Cat's Eye, followed by any number of King adaptations by Mick Garris, before working your way up to a film like this, and then kicking the doors of the genre open wide.  Whatever the case, a story like The Black Phone is an example of a Horror story finding itself lucky enough to be elevated to the level of pure art, and it is well worth the time and effort.

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