‘The Black Phone’ Review: Hawke as a Horror Villain
By Daniel Rester
Scott Derrickson returns to the horror genre with The Black Phone, based on Joe Hill’s 2004 short story. The director brings back much of his Sinister (2012) team, including co-writer C. Robert Cargill, editor Frédéric Thoraval, and actors Ethan Hawke and James Ransone. Hawke takes the lead role again, but this time he isn’t the protagonist. Playing against type, Hawke is “The Grabber,” a serial killer and kidnapper.
In Denver in 1978, adolescent males are being kidnapped. The latest victim is Finney (Mason Thames), taken from his alcoholic father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) and gifted sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). She has psychic dreams about the previous victims.
Finney is locked away in the Grabber’s sound-proof basement with only a mattress, a toilet, rolls of carpet, and a broken phone as company. The boy must face the creepy man’s mind games as he comes down to visit Finney while wearing strange devil masks. Finney gets aid from the Grabber’s dead victims though, who call him through the non-functional phone on the wall.
While being nowhere near as frightening as Sinister, The Black Phone is still an entertaining bit of horror from Derrickson. It has some bloody and ghoulish imagery at times, but it functions as being more thrilling than scary as a whole. The scariest scene doesn’t even involve the Grabber, but rather an intense beating of a child by a parent with a belt. It’s a powerful and realistic scene of child abuse.
Thames is really good as Finney, who you continue to root for despite the character making very dumb decisions at times (his lack of trying to use the toilet lid to break the window is frustrating). McGraw is a standout as Gwen, a tough little girl trying to help the cops find her brother. She has the funniest lines in The Black Phone as well when Derrickson occasionally lets humor slide through the grounded and dark approach.
The Black Phone belongs to Hawke though. He’s expertly creepy and weird as the antagonist. It makes you wish he would have explored these darker roles more in his career, and hopefully he will now. I could see the various masks he wears in the film becoming Halloween costume staples as well.
Derrickson’s film is about kids using their abilities to stand up for themselves. It’s a strong message, but the violence in the child fight scenes is a little rough at times. I appreciate the realism of the bullying, but some of the scenes are extended and bloody beyond necessity.
The Black Phone is well-designed, thrilling, and excellently performed. Idiotic character decisions, repetitive scenes, and a lack of scares drop it down a notch though. Hawke makes it all worthwhile despite the flaws.
My Grade: 7.5/10 (letter grade equivalent: B)
Running Time: 1h 42min