Happy Halloween from HorrOrigins, and have we got a real treat for you. Though it seemed like we lost him to Marvel for a while, Scott Derrickson is back in the horror game with The Black Phone. Currently, his highest rated film in the genre, The Black Phone marks a new evolution to Derrickson’s trademark storytelling style of combining the crime thriller with a supernatural edge, something that dates all the way back to the beginning with Hellraiser: Inferno (yeah, remember that one?). Back along for the ride as well is C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson’s prime writing partner for the last decade. He’s someone who got his start writing reviews and articles online, which proves there’s hope for me yet. This is a partnership that was solidified in 2012 with Blumhouse’s small scale hit, Sinister. Once a golden child for the studio, Sinister is not talked about much now. But I haven’t forgotten, and well, it’s officially its 10-year anniversary. Which means it’s a perfect time to re-visit and discuss the parallels with its welcome spiritual successor (pun always intended).
Obviously, both films are a great treat for fans of Ethan Hawke, because under Derrickson he’s able to flex his talents as both protagonist and antagonist. Definitely not the hero in Sinister, but his complicated crime novelist character, Ellison Oswalt, is understandable (no writer wants to go back to normal life). On the other side is The Black Phone’s Grabber, a child killer with a flair for vaudeville theatrics, and just enough backstory to still keep him mysterious. Hawke definitely has plenty to work with: Oswalt remains stoic and determined as he willingly plunges further into a nightmare, whereas, the Grabber is like an unhinged child ready to pull the wings off a fly. And this comes through even though his face is hidden behind the various masks (you know Spirit Halloween is going to have field day selling these). For a guy who doesn’t like horror films, Hawke has definitely been building a reel of entries over the last decade.
Though they do come off as polar opposites, they also have interesting similarities. They’re both guilty of luring some innocent children to an untimely demise. And both have similar tastes in one story brick homes, that come complete with a hanging tree. Of course, in Sinister, where the plot kicks in is in the attic, while it’s the basement in The Black Phone. The moral of the story is, don’t move into a house with either. Move into a mobile home, nothing bad seems to happen there.
Another treat for all film stock purists in the audience is that both films implement Super 8 footage to varying effect. The Black Phone cleverly incorporates the vintage stocks for one of its main character’s prophetic dream sequences while staying true to its 70’s setting. This is a welcome style change that allows glimpses into characters who make an impact, in spite of their minimal screen presence. Sinister’s Super 8, though, is its driving force as Oswalt discovers reels of various murders and unknowingly invites a cursed cycle to continue. Derrickson is able to use the format in both to create a false sense of warmth, showing happy memories of the children with their families, before abruptly yanking the rug out to the tragic truth.
But it’s not all gloom and doom in either film as comic relief is provided by James Ransone. Fans of The Wire rejoice as Ziggy Sobotka is getting work and gets to steal a few scenes from the lead. Whether it's Sinister’s Deputy So & So who gets to fanboy over meeting a famous writer, or The Black Phone’s armchair detective, Max, who just wants be involved, Ransone’s awkward mannerisms bring an all too human charm. He doesn’t feel like a character in either movie, he feels like a real person. Hell, Ransone basically has a dry run of Max when he reprises So & So for 2015’s Sinister 2, with a similar obsession wall trying to price together connections. It’s kind of like what I’m doing with this article.
And if there’s one small, but major, element that links these two, it’s the handful of ghost kids. Sinister’s children of Bughuul are pretty downplayed, showing up toward the third act for a jump-scare, unseen by Oswalt, but letting the audience know that the house is no longer safe. The Grabber’s victims however, definitely take on a more proactive role as shown in the trailer. Five kids trapped in a purgatory like state, where potentially some make it farther than others. And similar to Sinister, only the audience can see the ghost children pulling the strings as they assist the young protagonist, Finny, against his captor. Interestingly, in both films, Derrickson and Cargill have the kids in groups of five.
Both films side by side show that Derrickson and Cargill have improved on a winning formula for small-scale, mainstream horror. They clearly have a love and respect for 1970’s horror (my favorite decade as well) and it shows. Both films stand strong without having to rely on explicit gore, but cleverly tricking you into thinking you saw more than you did.
If this were a competition, The Black Phone takes the win. Sinister is a film that literally finds its strength from rediscovery. For The Black Phone, we can all get behind of coming-of-age story, looking back a time where your small seemed as big the world could be and a time where “Stranger Danger” and the kids at school were all you had to worry about. But it finds its strength by focusing on the dark side of childhood, where some children are forced to grow up fast due to circumstance, some children are robbed of the opportunity to grow up, and the horror that comes when an adult hasn’t let go of being a child.
But, in a competition with yourself, there can only be one winner. Perhaps far off in 2032, we’ll get a spiritual third film, making this a Derrickson/Cargill trilogy that reunites the recurring players one more time. A happy Halloween from me to all of you. Stay safe and spooky, and always check your candy.
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