Ethan Hawke appears to have entered the bad guy phase of his movie career. After a popular turn as religious zealot and cult leader Arthur Harrow on Disney+’s “Moon Knight,” he returns to haunt your dreams as a masked serial killer nicknamed The Grabber in “The Black Phone,” now playing in theatres.
Adapted from a short story of the same name by acclaimed author, and Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, and set in 1978, “The Black Phone” centers on shy baseball pitcher Finney (Mason Thames, who resembles a teen Patrick Swayze).
Bullied at school and ostracized by his classmates, things aren’t much better at home where his abusive, alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) doesn’t seem to have a clue how to be a parent to him or his potty-mouthed sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).
In town, kids are disappearing, lured away by The Grabber, a serial killer who approaches his prey dressed as a macabre children’s entertainer and a question. “Wanna see a magic trick?”
Finney becomes the sixth victim when The Grabber knocks him unconscious and whisks the boy away to a soundproof basement with an antique black phone on the wall. Although disconnected, Finney soon discovers he can communicate with The Grabber’s previous victims on the phone. In the dungeon the voices of the dead attempt to help him escape, while sister Gwen looks for clues in a series of very vivid psychic dreams. “Please, please,” she says, “let the dreams be true.”
“The Black Phone” is an intense, efficiently told horror story of captivity, dread and friendship. Finney spends most of the film trapped in the Grabber’s basement, relying on ingenuity, a little help from some otherworldly entities and an untapped reserve of courage to survive.
The creepy supernatural element aside, it’s the real-life terror of the very earthbound Grabber that shocks. With no motive other than satisfying is own twisted desires, he is the specter of mindless malevolence. Hawke, performing through a mask for 99.9% of the film, projects pure evil. Most of his dialogue might sound almost innocent on the page, but add a high-pitched affectation and expert delivery, and a line like, “I will never make you do anything you won’t like,” becomes, “I will never make you do anything you won’t… like.” That pause is where the menace is, and Hawke plays those goose-bump raising moments beautifully.
Thames hands in an authentic and resource performance, but it is McGraw as the firebrand Gwen who steals the show. She wouldn’t have been out of place in any number of 80s Amblin flicks. She s resilient, has a way with a cuss word and brings the heart and soul to her dysfunctional family unit.
Director Scott Derrickson faithfully recreates an inviting 1970s backdrop, painted with a mix of teen concerns, like bullies and the cute girl in lab class, edged with a darker, more violent hue. It may have been a simpler time, but Derrickson isn’t all about nostalgia. You might still get beaten up on the way home from school, or worse. It feels authentic, and when the real horror enters the picture, it hits hard.
“The Black Phone” is an unsettling horror thriller that doesn’t rely on gore, just heaps of tension, suspense, atmospherics and fright that doesn’t rely on a supernatural entity to terrify.