The ‘70s are widely considered one of, if not the, best decades when it comes to American horror movie history. It was the era when Italian giallos paved the way for the slasher sub-genre, when production companies started to usher horror into the mainstream, and finally, some of the most brutally violent stories came to the big screen.
Many cinephiles look back on the ’70s fondly, and in Scott Derrickson’s latest horror movie, The Black Phone, the mentality, themes, and style of the decade are put on display again. An adaptation of the 2004 short story of the same name by Joe Hill, The Black Phone, tells the story of a small Colorado suburb in 1978. The community finds itself plagued by a series of child abductions and primarily follows the siblings Finney (Mason Thames), and his clairvoyant sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).
But, as you can probably guess, Finney gets abducted by the wanted masked man – known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) – and the children must race against time before the mysterious psychopath reaches his boiling point. Obviously, it is easy to see the influence of the ‘70s in The Black Phone straight away, thanks to its setting.
However, when you look deeper into the flick’s subtext, you can see that in many ways, Derrickson’s vision and motivations go beyond aesthetics, instead evoking the very essence of what drove the majority of ’70s horror movies.
During the ’70s in America, the country was reeling thanks to the influx of serial killer publicity and the violent images of the Vietnam war that dominated the news cycle. The Universal monsters from the ‘30s – ‘50s that once haunted moviegoers’ nightmares were now replaced with the faces of the Manson Family, Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.
Monsters weren’t fantastical or easily recognisable as evil. Then when giallos introduced the concept of a masked killer, the slashers from the ’70s, such as Halloween, and Don’t Hang Up, demonstrated how people weren’t even safe in their own homes anymore.
’70s horror movies were more personal, focused on family units, and were a direct reflection of how terrified the onslaught of violence in the newspapers had made Americans.
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“I remember when going into elementary school, at least where I grew up in North Denver, there was a new presence of serial killers,” Derrickson said in production materials for the film, when discussing his own personal experiences growing up during the time period.
“It was the mid-’70s, and everyone was telling urban legends about the worst kinds of serial killers. All of these horrors had become such a real presence in everyone’s psyches.” The director went on to clarify that it was this first-hand feeling that drove his direction for The Black Phone.
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“The trick was to capture not just what the era looked or sounded like, but what did it feel like?” he said. “I wanted The Black Phone to feel like how the late ’70s felt to me when I was 12 and 13.”
The Black Phone is told through the perspective of anxiety and helplessness, as we follow Finney trying desperately to escape from a masked killer who is impossible to understand or reason with. In short, it successfully captures the serial killer panic of the decade.
Like John Carpenter’s Halloween, a small community becomes a hunting ground for a faceless predator that you can’t escape from.
Besides holding the general theme of unease from the era, The Black Phone also isn’t afraid to throw in some of its worship and homage to the great features of the ’70s.
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Even though the general public was terrified by the news, they still bought the papers, they still went to the cinemas, and in 1975 Universal Studios felt confident enough to make the blockbuster horror movie Jaws (which, let’s be honest, would have been a B-movie if it was made a decade earlier) because it knew people would eat it up.
Humans are fascinated by the macabre and always have been. The Black Phone’s references to some of the great horror movies of the decade, such as The Exorcist with its jump scares, Carrie with its depiction of the character Gwen, and Halloween with its white-masked killer, also reflect the strange obsession that the ‘70s had with looking towards horror for comfort in times when the reality was far scarier than fiction.
“Growing up and feeling a lot of fear as a kid and understanding that emotion, my love for horror ultimately originated there,” Derrickson says. “Watching horror and making horror, for me, has always been about confronting something that I’m afraid of. I love the non-denial in the genre.”
“Looking into the eyes of something unspoken or that’s unspeakably scary in the world or in nature, I’ve always found it an incredibly cathartic experience, both as a viewer and as an artist.”
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“You have to see Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” Finny’s friend Robin continually says throughout The Black Phone. Tobe Hooper’s iconic slasher probably captures the ’70s horror movie scene perfectly; it featured a family of cannibals who indiscriminately killed anyone who came into their sight line.
The killers were wild, unpredictable, and played with their victims in a tortuous fashion that honestly made you feel ill to your stomach (remember headcheese? Because I can’t un-remember it.)
While the Black Phone is by no means on the same level as one of the best horror movies ever made and, as we said above, does reference other ’70s flicks too, it does lovingly evoke Hopper’s film countless times, making it stand out.
You can see that Derrickson holds a lot of reverence for the 1974 movie, and if any film is going to make you think of the violent and brutal imagery associated with the decade, it will be Hopper’s.
From The Black Phone’s dialogue, Hawke’s sadistic and erratic performance, and the bleak imagery of Finney’s concrete cage, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s influence, can easily be seen.
By all the Texas Chainsaw worship, we are not only subconsciously reminded of the ’70s horror scene, but we are made to see the film as Derrickson would of as a kid. It is the amalgamation of real terror, paired with awe and fascination at the very psyche of a serial killer and our emotional reactions to them.
So, whether you love or hate The Black Phone, you can’t deny that Scott Derrickson has managed to do what few horror filmmakers can – he has made a love letter to the ’70s that takes your spirit back in time.
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On reflection, the film is a personal essay about his childhood. Although some of its supernatural scenes can be described as goofy, its essence is the same DNA of any long-time horror fan who chooses to sit down to watch it in the cinema.