Ethan Hawke as a masked child-abducting psychopath in the late 1970s? Yep, I’m in. That’s part of the setup for “The Black Phone”, a spooky supernatural horror film from director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”, “Doctor Strange”). I was onboard after first hearing the names involved. One great trailer and a creepy poster later and “The Black Phone” moved pretty high up on my ‘Most Anticipated’ list.
This Blumhouse produced chiller is based on a 2004 short story by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King. Derrickson co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill. For “The Black Phone”, the pair pull from several horror sub-genres, even injecting their story with a crafty crime-thriller element. But what it does best is capture its period setting and develop a truly menacing atmosphere. There are a couple of hard-to-miss oversights which had me scratching my head. But as a whole, the movie sucks you in and keeps you firmly planted on the edge of your seat.
Set to a well conceived 1978 backdrop, the story unfolds in a tight-knit neighborhood in North Denver. A young boy named Finney (Mason Thames) has plenty to fear. He’s constantly hassled by a pack of punk bullies at school. His widowed father (Jeremy Davies) is an abusive drunk who takes out his loneliness and grief on his children. Oh, and then there’s the string of missing children in the area, some who Finney knows well.
At least Finney has his precocious little sister Gwen (a terrific Madeleine McGraw). The two are extremely close and often find refuge in each other. While Finney is a bit more reserved and non-confrontational, Gwen couldn’t be more different. She’s a fireball and (unfortunately) one way the filmmakers show it is with the tired and overdone potty-mouthed child trope which they milk for a cheap laugh or two. What makes Gwen so compelling isn’t her slinging f-bombs. It’s her come-and-go psychic abilities similar to ones her late mother possessed. It adds a compelling layer to the her character and the story.
Strangely, despite the rash of neighborhood child abductions, parents seem pretty lax and let their kids roam the streets unattended. So it’s no surprise when Finney is snatched by the man dubbed “The Grabber”. Hawke plays him with an unsettling calm, laced with brief yet terrifying bursts of violence. I love Derrickson’s choice not to reveal his face. We get one slightly blurred image during Finney’s abduction. Otherwise his face remains mostly hidden by a hideously disturbing mask.
Interestingly, we never really learn anything about The Grabber. His anonymity is meant to add to the dread. He poses as a part-time magician who cruises around town in a black van with the words “Abracadabra” painted across it. There are also his black balloons that may or may not be a signature. The aura of mystery mostly works although the character does fit a tad too neatly into the movie serial killer archetype. Still Hawke is pretty great and his first foray as a true villain is quite effective.
Finney is thrown into a concrete soundproof basement with a dirty toilet, a mattress bolted to the floor, and a disconnected black rotary phone hanging on the wall. To the boy’s surprise, the phone periodically rings and on the other end are voices that I won’t spoil, by they offer tips to help him escape. And then you have Gwen’s dreams which seem to reveal hints to where her brother may be. In a sense these supernatural components offer a cool twist. But they also bring a “Stranger Things” vibe to parts of the story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but don’t expect something grittier and more grounded.
Though its story is hardly seamless, “The Black Phone” keeps its audience locked in by maintaining its sinister tone and building some true edge-of-your-seat suspense. And it’s a lot of fun watching Hawke dig into such an evil character. To no one’s surprise he’s really good. And while I wish there was a little more backstory to The Grabber, Hawke carves out such a frightening presence that you’re too engrossed to focus on the missing details. “The Black Phone” is out now in theaters.
I’ve seen the trialer for this and surprise! I’ll be doing this when it streams.
Oh really??? Nice!!!!
BTW thoroughly enjoyed RRR, what a ride! 🙂
You did? That’s awesome. It’s most definitely unique, right?
Absolutely! And so much fun!
I loved it. Hoping to see it again soon.
I think I might see this mainly because of Ethan Hawke who has been playing a lot of interesting roles lately. I really did like his work in Moon Knight as I thought that was a great show. Yet, I am in love with Ms. Marvel.
Loved Moon Knight, checked out of Ms. Marvel after episode 2. Not for me. Hawke though…LOVE him!
Glad to hear this is a decent flick. I’ve been looking forward to it and will add it to my watchlist. Thanks for the detailed review.
This one really did a good job with atmosphere. It’s legitimately creepy. Not all of its dots connect, but still it’s a good time.
My 22 year old daughter called me last night, she’s always been my horror movie buddy, and said I’ve “got” to see it. I’m hooked for sure.
I’ll tell you, the crowd I watched it with were having a blast. Not noisy and disruptive. But several gasps and creeped-out giggles.
Keith, this one will be a streamer as I can only coax my wife to the theatre for only a couple horror movies a year and have to “use my chips” strategically. Trailer intrigued me. Another Hawke fan here…loved him and Moon Knight.
Hawke is a favorite of mine. Such a fan. Loved him in Moon Knight and he’s really good here too.