Ethan Hawke, at 30, has never played an absolute villain before, so it would be nice to say that in “The Black Phone” he’s not just playing a serial killer – one of those nameless lunatics who live in a one-story shabby brick house with a dungeon in the basement – but that makes it something memorable. His mask is certainly disturbing. Hawke’s character, known as Grabber, is a kidnapper of teenagers, to whom he presumably does unspeakable things. He drives a black ’70s pickup truck with the word Abracadabra written on the side, and when he exits the vehicle to pull his victims off the street, he’ll be wearing a magician’s hat or carrying black balloons. But it is only when we see it in its domestic element that we grasp the full hideous grandeur of this mask, which comes in removable sections and almost seems to have been chiseled in stone: sometimes it smirks, sometimes a frown, and sometimes he only wears the lower half.
Whether it’s Hawke playing an evil figure is one of the main hooks of “The Black Phone.” Still, serial killer movies, or at least good ones, tend to contain a certain dark mystery. By the time Hawke appears in “The Black Phone,” in a weird way, we feel like we already know him.
The film is set in North Denver in 1978, which seems like the perfect setting for a serial killer movie, especially since it colors the era with a quota of compelling detail. We meet Finney (Mason Thames), the gloomy, long-haired 13-year-old hero, when he throws a Little League game; after giving up the game-winning home run, we see the teams pass each other, shake hands, and say “Good Game, Good Game” – a detail belonging 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 biggest idol of ‘Happy Days’ is (she thinks it’s Potsie, but prefers Danny Bonaduce in ‘The Partridge Family’), and the movie creates a resonant period vibe of backyard rocket launchers, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” songs like “Free Ride,” and, tellingly, posters for missing children.
There seems to have been a recent outbreak of them: five teenagers, all boys, taken off the streets by the Grabber. And Finney, of course, is next. It’s not long before he’s kidnapped and stuck in the Grabber’s dungeon – a concrete bunker, soundproofed and empty except for a filthy mattress, with corroded walls marked by a rusty horizontal crack that looks like a wound. The heart of the film is Finney’s experience there and his escape attempt. Occasionally, the Grabber shows up to the child, hinting at terrible things to come and giving him food, like scrambled eggs which looks scarier than anything else in the movie (although they turn out to be quite edible).
Yet despite the pitfalls of hell, “The Black Phone,” as we quickly discover, is not a realistic, grungy, scary serial killer movie like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Dahmer.” It’s more like ‘Room’ brought to life with a very heavy dose of fantasy horror, with touches of ‘It’ and ‘Stranger Things’. We get a hint at the direction of the film early on, when Gwen has a dream revealing details about the killer, like keeping those black balloons in his van. You might hear about Gwen’s nightmarish premonition and think, “Cool! Or you could take it as the first hint that “The Black Phone” is a horror movie that’s going to make up a lot of rules as it goes. Director Scott Derrickson directed the first ‘Doctor Strange’ film (as well as the 2012 horror film ‘Sinister,’ which also starred Hawke), and here, adapting a short story by Joe Hill, he has realized
The 1970s was a time when Central American serial killers, the kind who spread their crimes over decades in places like Wichita, seemed to spring up like mushrooms. Yet they were still becoming iconic; it would take popular culture to do that. (“Red Dragon,” Thomas Harris’ first novel to feature Hannibal Lecter, was published in 1981.) Now, however, they’re so iconic they’re downright standard. In “The Black Phone”, the Grabber violates the bucolic setting but also fits into it quite comfortably. The film presents him not as a complex figure of evil but as a pure screen archetype: the psychopath with a dungeon on the side. Hawke, other than the Ethan-Hawke-as-demon mask, doesn’t have much to work with, and to up the creep factor, he reflexively falls in ways that may remind you of Buffalo Bill in “The Silence lambs”. “Hawke is such a beloved actor that he’ll likely get a pass, but given the outcry this character caused 30 years ago in the LGBTQ community, you might be wondering why Hawke got sidetracked. towards what amounts to a sort of sick cliche.
In the dungeon, there is another object: an old black rotary telephone hanging on the wall. The Grabber tells Finney the phone isn’t working, but it keeps ringing, and every time Finney answers it, the voice he hears on the other end belongs to… well, I won’t reveal it, but suffice it to say, the film took a leap beyond the everyday. Finney gets plenty of clues about the Grabber: what his games are, weak spots in the dungeon’s infrastructure (like a hole he’s starting to dig under loose tiles or a fridge hidden in a wall behind the bathroom) . Much of this leads nowhere, but it establishes that Finney is now part of a brotherhood of victims. It’s a harassed child who will learn to defend himself!
“The Black Phone” pulls you in on its own terms – that is, if you accept that it’s less of an ingenious thriller and more of a stylized contraption of sorts. It’s a horror ride that holds you back, and it shouldn’t have any trouble carving out an audience, but I didn’t find it particularly scary (the three or four skip-worthy moments are all cuts of shock with booms on the soundtrack – the oldest trick in the book). The film plays a game with the audience, rooting the action in tropes of fantasy and revenge that are meant to raise the stakes, but in this case mostly lower them.
The best of variety
Subscribe to the Variety newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Click here to read the full article.