South Korea, 2002


Jan Molby used to play for the Liverpool football team. This week he was heard on the Anfield Index Podcast discussing the game between Liverpool and Leicester and the problematic defence of Liverpool.  Molby mentioned the central defender Matip and how after a mistake the player had a tendency to become withdrawn and disappear from the game. Molby compared those moments to the silences that can happen on a bad telephone line. Jan Moby did not extend the metaphor but he could have. Matip is partnered in defence by Dejan Lovren.  When this defender makes a mistake, he reacts by rushing around and being impulsive. He blunders into one indiscretion after another. The two men can be compared to the two ends of a frustrating telephone call.  Lovren creates irritating static, and Matip leaves you with disappointing silence.  There is no doubt. Phones have affected the way we think and live.

Phone is a modest horror film from South Korea. It appeared before the arrival of the smartphone and when we were still astonished by being able to carry mobile phones inside our pockets. Phone is inspired by the Japanese classic Ringu, which was made four years earlier. In both films the supernatural threat is carried by a piece of modern technology. In Ringu it is a videocassette.  Both movies have supernatural creatures that have very long hair that hides their faces. Although it is inexplicable to me some people find this very disturbing.  Phone has a simple plot that concerns infidelity and revenge but the film is told in a fractured fashion. There are both time and scene shifts. Because a horror film needs shocks, there are also flashbacks to earlier deaths.  At the end the film fails to startle but individual scenes have surprises

The dialogue is functional, and the explicit exposition creaks, but the indifference of the actors to the plot they are revealing somehow makes it inoffensive. In the scenes where they are required to be emotional the performers switch to a different gear, and their competence is a pleasant almost heart-warming surprise. The child of the couple that has the unfaithful husband is possessed by the ghost that wants vengeance.   Eun Seo-woo is convincing as the disturbed child.  She grits her teeth, hisses and is irritating and irritated. Having such an evil kid around the place diverts the audience from the twists that follow in the plot.  The movie is almost thematic.  The possessed child has sexual feelings towards her father because she is possessed by his dead lover, and the heroine is a journalist who needs to escape a gang of vengeful criminals who have been selling underage sex. The frightened journalist leaves the city and retreats to what happens to be a less than ideal family.  And just in case anybody is missing the point the dead lover is a teenager who is still at school.


Phone is not a big budget movie but it is well made. Most of the film is shot on sets. The exterior scenes in the rain are good, and clever use is made of the kind of bold street signs that are only seen in movies.  Ahn Byeong-ki the director resists the temptation to add shadows although there is a lot of rain. The lighting is bright but complemented with a strong sense of muted colour. The movie looks like a well-made British TV film from the 80s. The music also sounds like something that might have been written for British television before it became hysterical. This restraint adds appeal to the film. In the horror scenes Byeong-ki borrows from Hitchcock and cuts between startled faces and objects. When interviewed, the director said that it was important to be authentic. He defined authenticity as being loyal to the horror genre.  There is something endearing about this notion of authentic artificiality.

Today a higher percentage of the population of the world has a mobile phone than a toilet. This is an aside but worth mentioning because it says something about how tech companies make their money and because at the beginning of the film the titles refer to Toilet Films. Googling the name to establish the relationship of this company to the film Phone is not recommended. Phone is not a tirade against technology but there are warnings in the film about our modern way of life.   Mobile phones disrupt a lesson in school. A young woman is so preoccupied with the conversation she is having on her phone she fails to notice her boyfriend being murdered.   The troublesome phone that carries the messages from the supernatural presence is eventually thrown into the sea. This, of course, could have been done sooner and, whilst the plot requires the phone to survive for at least the length of the movie, the retention of the phone hints also at our dependency on gadgets. The murder of a previous victim that takes place in a lift demonstrates the different conversations we have with technology.  Pressing buttons in a lift and waiting for a machine to tell us the passing floors has become so routine that we no longer think of it as an interaction with machinery.  Some people fall in love with their phones and computers. This happens between customers and Apple, a company that insists its software and operating systems can only be used on their overpriced goods. By now there should have been protests against the exploitation of consumers by a monopoly.  Instead they make movies about one of its CEOs.  Meanwhile the relationship between motorcar and men is best not mentioned.


Well before smartphones and social media the people who make movies understood how a telephone call could both benefit and ruin the recipient. The most paranoid example in Hollywood is Sorry Wrong Number. Barbara Stanwyck hears two men on a crossed line plotting her murder. When she rings the police, she is treated with contempt. Poor beautiful Grace Kelly needs all her pluck, some luck and a pair of scissors to avoid being killed in the anything but Hitchcock classic Dial M For Murder.  Her attempted murder is triggered by a telephone call.  Black and white wide-angle photography was almost defined by the classic shot that has the ringing telephone in the bottom left hand corner. Phones provide opportunities for us to communicate and even fulfil our responsibilities but they are also tools for persecution in the hands of enemies. Cold calling by businesses to identify potential customers is a social problem in the UK.  It creates anxiety in dementia sufferers and confuses and annoys everyone else. The positive and negative aspects of the telephone have been amplified by social media. No longer is community defined by family and locale. The price paid by subscribers of Facebook and Twitter is that all can intrude or at least until they are blocked. Disguise is often important in these communications. Traditional communities and our families and friends shaped us all in the past. No one at this point can predict how a digital network that includes those who are both strange and remote will define personalities in the future. Traditional football communities were defined by location and tribes based on geography. The Anfield Index Podcast relies on a new generation of football fans from around the globe and a different sensibility. This feels positive but there are also darker examples that involve criminals or crazy conspirators.  Even the establishment loves mobile phones and social media. Although we should keep our fingers crossed no one should bet against Donald Trump creating a nuclear holocaust via his Twitter account. His most recent tweet has been condemned as a declaration of war by North Korean President Kim Jong Un.  Compared to what may happen next the violence that occurs in Phone is quite modest.


Each year 150 million smartphones are discarded in the USA. There are 323 million people living in the USA. As there are still some children under five who do not have a mobile phone, we can assume that more than half the people who buy mobile phones became bored with them after twelve months. In 2011 in the USA only twelve million of the discarded phones were recycled. The UN has calculated that annually 50 million tonnes of what they call e waste is generated worldwide each year. This equates to 7 kilograms for every person on the planet. Note that figure and you realise the absence of toilets for many of these mobile phone users is less of a problem than we thought. The e waste contains toxic elements such as lead, mercury and arsenic. There are more ingredients.  All leak dangerous substances into the air. Most of the discarded phones are dumped in the developing world. The average weight of a Great Pyramid is 2.3 tonnes. Every year the world is dumping enough plastic from e waste alone to build 21 and a bit pyramids. The journalist in Phones has a couple of nightmares. They provide the required jump scares. The nightmares in the movie are contrived.  The worldwide nightmare being created by an addiction to smartphones is real.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.