In this 1970s throwback horror film, Ethan Hawke gets to play the sinister guy, but everything else makes you want to dial 911 on this wasted opportunity.
Assuming you’re a serial killer who’s worth his weight in dismembered bodies, wouldn’t you want something more creative and descriptive than “the Grabber” as your moniker? That’s the name given to the 1970s child-murdering villain played by Ethan Hawke in The Black Phone, a gloomy new Blumhouse thriller from director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange). The person behind the mask appears to be terrifying enough, issuing random threats from behind a kabuki-style mask that changes expression to match his shifting emotions. We’re guessing it went from a toothless grin to a pout when the bad guy saw his unplanned nickname splashed across the front page for the first time.
The Grabber has concentrated most of his creative inspiration into his face apparel. His techniques, which amount to locking children away in his dungeons, taunting them with scornful remarks, and then waiting for them to make a feeble escape attempt before doing his vicious thing, are nothing particularly unique or elaborate. Hawke offers a sort of suspenseful nonchalance to the part that conveys the mundaneness of evil through uninflected naturalism in his performance.
But he’s also a rather basic psychopath lacking in gimmicks or even the appearance of an intimidating sickness.
A filthy mattress, a single high window, and the rotary device of the film’s title are all seen in this basement. It’s here that 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is disappointed to learn that his face has been put on posters all around town with the names of other children. Finney, a reserved loner, might be destined to suffer the same fate as those who had gone before him if it were not for a literal lifeline: the supposedly non-working phone repeatedly rings, and on the other end are the voices of previous Grabber’s victims, all giving advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes they did and profit from their shared knowledge of the property.
The concept is clever and compelling. It was written by Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King, as a short story. The Grabber’s hunting grounds are the northern suburbs of Denver in 1978, when bell-bottoms, FM radio hits, and rabbit-ear TVs were all popular. Any viewer who paying attention to stories about lost children in seemingly perfect tiny towns in misleadingly peaceful rural America would be forgiven for confusing this actual location with one of King’s haunted Maine cities.
It’s all very Derry in Mean Town, a ghoulish middle school where the smart kids are forced to wear pink and green — as they’re ridiculed by their peers. In reality, the film often feels like another Stranger Things dilution, trading in literature’s reigning master of horror for an inferior throwback imitation. Do we remind you that the Grabber uses a bundle of black balloons to attract his victims?
To his credit, Hill does not give so many obvious references to his father’s work. The Black Phone is a ruthlessly efficient 30-page survival yarn with King-ish in its punchy writing. Derrickson, on the other hand, fatally relaxes the tension in extending this short tale into a full-length motion picture.
The protagonist’s script, co-written with frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill, dwells on generic coming-of-age corporate before getting to the abduction, then fades away from Finney’s problem for surprisingly perfunctory sequences with his clairvoyant, annoyingly precocious little sister (Madeleine McGraw), who curses like a sailor and “comically” bargains with Jesus. The inept local cops appear to get all of their clues from her vaguely promontory dreams. An unskilled gumshoe (good character actor James Ransone) is also on the case, but he’s too stupid to realize how close he really is to the truth. Where’s Clarice Starling when you need her?
Scott Derrickson, returning to his genre roots after a few years in the Marvel content mill, is capable of tighter entertainment. He gathered both Hawke and Ransone into Sinister ten years ago, a far more effective Stephen King take on children at risk from a malevolent stalker. That horror film had genuine messages about its protagonist’s divided priorities: he was willing to jeopardize his family for the sake of his career as a writer.
It was also a bit frightening, which is why it’s so much more effective than most films like it. It used fragments of film surveillance to worm its way under the skin of the audience.
The Black Phone, which is similarly drawn into an 8mm-stock detour, only offers a few drops of real suspense from its standard gimmick. The conclusion is a foregone conclusion that will almost certainly elicit cheers, but it would have been considerably more effective if the Grabber’s gauntlet of terror had grabbed us harder throughout. He’s a frightening mask in search of a genuine boogeyman; he’s no scarier than anything you’d find on a Spirit Halloween rack. To peel back the film’s own Pennywisian face-obfuscating camouflage is to discover nothing much beneath it.
Cast Leads: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell
Director: Scott Derrickson
Producer: Jason Blum, C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson
Written by: Joe Hill, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Music: Mark Korven
Director Of Photography: Brett Jutkiewicz