The Black Phone
Reteaming with his 'Sinister' director Scott Derrickson, Ethan Hawke is unnervingly excellent in this tense and eerie 70s-set horror film.
July 19, 2022
The Black Phone didn't need to star Ethan Hawke. In a way, it doesn't really. Fresh from Moon Knight and The Northman, Hawke is definitely in this unsettling 1978-set horror film. He's also exceptional in it. But his top billing springs from his name recognition and acting-veteran status rather than his screen time. Instead, superb up-and-comer Mason Thames gets the bulk of the camera's attention in his first feature role. After him, equally outstanding young talent Madeleine McGraw (Ant-Man and The Wasp) comes next. They spend most of their time worrying about, hearing rumours of, hiding from, battling and/or trying to track down a mask-wearing, van-driving, child-snatching villain — the role that Hawke plays in a firmly supporting part, almost always beneath an eerie disguise. Visibly at least, anyone could've donned the same apparel and proven an on-screen source of menace.
There's a difference between popping something creepy over your face and actually being creepy, though. Scary masks can do a lot of heavy lifting, but they're also just a made-to-frighten facade. Accordingly, when it comes to being truly petrifying, Hawke undoubtedly makes The Black Phone. He doesn't literally; his Sinister director Scott Derrickson helms, and also co-wrote the script with that fellow horror flick's C Robert Cargill, adapting a short story by Stephen King's son Joe Hill — and the five-decades-back look and feel, complete with amber and grey hues, plus a nerve-rattling score, are all suitably disquieting stylistic touches. But as the movie's nefarious attacker, Hawke is unnervingly excellent, and also almost preternaturally unnerving in every moment. Whenever he opens his mouth, his voice couldn't echo from anyone else; however, it's the nervy, ominous and bone-weary physicality that he brings to the character that couldn't be more pitch-perfect.
Everyone is tired in The Black Phone, albeit in varying ways. At first, that comes as a surprise — it's a looser, more laidback time, and the film happily rides the vibe in its opening Little League game. Still, that relaxed air comes with its own sense of anxiety. What's better, an era when kids escape their homes during daylight, roaming the streets as they like but also instilled with a festering sense of stranger danger, or a period where such unsupervised freedom seems utterly unthinkable? This movie lurks in the former, obviously, and there is indeed a dangerous stranger prowling around north Denver's suburban streets. To 13-year-old Finney Blake (Thames), his younger sister Gwen (McGraw) and their schoolmates, that monstrous figure is known as The Grabber, and he's abducted several of their peers so far.
Finney and Gwen are also exhausted at home, where their alcoholic father Terrence (Jeremy Davies, The House That Jack Built) is hardly hands-on — unless his hands are flying in anger their way. At school, Finney has a trio of bullies to deal with, too; luckily, if his pal Robin (first-timer Miguel Cazarez Mora) isn't around to save him, the plucky and sweary Gwen usually is. She's zapped as well, courtesy of dreams of events that haven't quite happened yet. The pair's mother had the same ability, which is why their dad is so sozzled, and also so hard on the two of them. Fatigue is well and truly in the air, thick yet invisible, although The Grabber's (Hawke) is the flimsiest. After taking Finney, he's drained by his need to kidnap and kill. That doesn't stop him from terrorising the neighbourhood, of course — but if his latest target has his way, aided by advice whispered down the disconnected basement telephone by past victims, the masked assailant might soon be far worse than simply weary.
If you didn't know that The Black Phone came from Hill's pen, or that his father is the most famous horror author alive, you'd likely guess it the moment that The Grabber uses balloons to lure his prey. Those decorations are black, not red. The Grabber is a part-time magician instead of a demonic clown. No one dwells in a sewer here, but the trapped Finney does peer out of a basement window — and looking at him from the outside has a Pennywise-in-a-storm-drain appearance to it. The Black Phone isn't an IT do-over; however, it always feels like it has been moulded not just from memories of growing up in the 70s (Derrickson and Hill are the right ages, as is Hawke), but by minds that have also internalised King's brand of horror. Stranger Things does the same, but with the 80s. And as with the Netflix hit, that loving, knowing, nodding sensation doesn't stop The Black Phone from drawing viewers in — or keeping them immersed, engaged, entertained and unsettled.
If you also didn't know that The Black Phone was a short story on the page, you'd swiftly pick that by watching, too. The film can't be called economical or slight, but it jumps speedily from forebodingly setting the scene with gripping unease (that weariness is palpable) to getting close to wrapping everything up, all without lingering much in the middle. The sense that connecting the dots is happening a tad too fast can't be shaken, although it doesn't confine The Black Phone to the cellar where terrible, half-baked, by-the-numbers horror flicks should go to rot. (Also, The Black Phone isn't any of those things.) Rather, for such an escape room of a movie — a picture that's all about a teenage boy who isn't the typical hero using his brains and even his fears to hopefully puzzle together the necessary pieces to escape a room, with some supernatural help — it just seems too eager to flee.
Wishing there was more teasing and loitering to Derrickson's return to horror after helming the first Doctor Strange, and Hawke's as well, is the right kind of problem to have, though. There's plenty about The Black Phone that keeps audience hooked — and, unlike Finney, we'd be happy to remain that way a little longer. Derrickson's film is big on mood, and on crucial details. Almost every character feels lived-in, from its two key kids through to The Grabber, Terrence, and other victims fleshed out in small scenes and flashbacks. (Performances obviously play a pivotal part in the latter, not just from the superbly vicious Hawke and the impressive Thames and McGraw, but right down to IT: Chapter Two's James Ransone showing up and getting unhinged quickly.) There's always a dripping sense of tension, much of the picture's imagery is perturbing all on its own, and the well-executed jump scares do exactly what they're supposed to. The Black Phone doesn't always know when to stay on the line, but the chilling flick is still a horror-movie call worth taking.