Ethan Hawke has never portrayed a villain in 40 years, so it would be nice to say that in “The Black Phone” he doesn’t just play a serial killer — one of those anonymous lunatics who lives in a one-story dingy brick house with a dungeon inside Keller – but that he makes something unforgettable out of it. His mask is certainly worrying. Hawke’s character, known as Grabber, is a kidnapper of teenagers whom he will likely do untold things to. He drives a black ’70s van with the word abracadabra written on the side, and when he jumps out of the vehicle to snatch his victims off the road, he’s wearing a magician’s hat or some black balloons. But it’s not until we see him in his native element that we appreciate the full hideous grandeur of this mask, which comes in detachable parts and looks almost as if it’s set in stone: sometimes with a lewd smile, sometimes with a frown and sometimes he only wears the bottom half of it.
That this is Hawke’s debut as an evil character is one of the main catches of The Black Phone. Yet serial killer movies, or at least the good ones, tend to have a certain dark mystery. When Hawke shows up in The Black Phone, we have a weird feeling that we already know him.
The film is set in North Denver in 1978, which seems like the perfect setting for a serial killer movie, given that it delves into the era with plenty of compelling detail. We meet Finney (Mason Thames), the sad, long-haired 13-year-old hero as he hosts a Little League game; After he gave up the game-winning home run, we see the teams shuffle past each other, shake hands and say “Good game, good game” – a detail that belongs to “Dazed and Confused”, although at least the reference has its nostalgia in the right place. Finney and his precocious little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) discuss who the heartthrob is in Happy Days (she thinks it’s Potsie, but prefers Danny Bonaduce in The Partridge Family) and the film exudes a resonant vibe backyard rocket launchers, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” songs like “Free Ride,” and, significantly, posters for missing children.
Apparently there has been an epidemic recently: five teenagers, all boys, were dragged off the street by the grabber. And of course Finney is next. It’s not long before he’s kidnapped and imprisoned in the Grabber’s dungeon – a concrete bunker, soundproof and empty save for a filthy mattress, with corroded walls marked by a rusty horizontal crack that looks like a wound. At the heart of the film is Finney’s experience down there and his attempt to escape. Every once in a while, the grabber will present himself to the child, suggest horrible things, and give him food, like scrambled eggs, that looks scarier than anything else in the movie (although it turns out to be quite edible).
But despite the hellish trappings, as we quickly discover, “The Black Phone” is not a dreaded, dingy, realistic serial killer film like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Dahmer”. It’s more like “Room”, fueled by a top-heavy dose of imaginative horror, with hints of “It” and “Stranger Things”. We get a hint of where the movie is going early on when Gwen has a dream that reveals details about the killer, like the fact that he keeps those black balloons in his van. You might hear about Gwen’s nightmarish premonition and think, “Cool!” Or you might take it as your first clue that The Black Phone is a horror movie that will make up a lot of rules over time. The director, Scott Derrickson, directed the first Doctor Strange movie (as well as the 2012 horror film Sinister, which also starred Hawke), and here, in the adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill, he has a serial killer created a film that feels like a dark cousin of the comic book world, with supernatural elements that propel the story forward even if they prevent it from turning into a real nightmare.
The ’70s was an era when Central American serial killers spread their crimes across decades in places like Wichita, mushrooming. Yet they were still becoming iconic; it would take popular culture to fully achieve this. (“Red Dragon,” Thomas Harris’ first novel starring Hannibal Lecter, was published in 1981.) Now, however, they’re so iconic they’re almost standard. In “The Black Phone”, the grabber violates the bucolic setting, but also fits into it quite well. The film does not present him as a complex figure of evil, but as a pure screen archetype: the psychopath with a dungeon next door. Aside from the mask, Hawke doesn’t have much to do, and to add to the creep factor, he instinctively resorts to mannerisms that might remind you of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Hawke is such a popular actor that he’ll likely pull this off, but given the outcry this character caused in the LGBTQ community 30 years ago, you might be wondering why Hawke allowed himself to drift into some kind of sick cliché.
There is one other object in the dungeon: an ancient black rotary phone hanging on the wall. The Grabber tells Finney the phone isn’t working, but it keeps ringing, and every time Finney picks up, the voice he hears on the other end belongs to… well, I won’t reveal, but suffice it to say that the film has taken the leap beyond everyday life. Finney gets many clues about the Grabber: what his games are, the vulnerabilities in the dungeon’s infrastructure (like a hole he starts digging under loose tiles, or a fridge hidden in a wall behind the bathroom). A lot of it goes nowhere, but it shows that Finney has become part of a brotherhood of victims. He’s a bullied kid who will learn to fight back!
“The Black Phone” carries you along on its own terms – if you accept that it’s less of a genius thriller freak-out and more of some kind of stylized invention. It’s a pull-in horror ride and shouldn’t have trouble finding an audience, but I didn’t find it particularly scary (the three or four jump-worthy moments are all shock cuts with booms on the soundtrack – oldest trick in the book) . Playing a game with the audience, the film roots the action in tropes of fantasy and revenge intended to raise the stakes, but in this case mostly lower them.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/the-black-phone-review-ethan-hawke-1235298084/ The Black Phone review: Ethan Hawke as a serial killer