The Austin Chronicle

The Black Phone

Rated R, 102 min. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 24, 2022

It seems like an obvious question. Why has no one ever cast Ethan Hawke as a bad guy? Not simply a bad guy, but as a true villain, a monster who relishes delivering pain? Is there some inherent likability, something about his eyes or his voice that has made it hard for filmmakers to see past that affability, and find a cold, hard hunger within? Luckily, he knows writer C. Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson. They found Hawke's adeptness with exploring tragic flaws to be a powerful tool in monstrous morality tale Sinister, and now they invert those assets for The Black Phone.

An adaptation of Joe Hill's 2004 short story of the same name, it's a hybrid. While Sinister was a supernatural chiller of demonic assault, The Black Phone injects the uncanny into a more earthbound and explicable terror: the serial killer. Hawke plays the Grabber, a mysterious abductor of young boys, boys who disappear and are never seen again.

This is the deep depths of the 1970s, and not just because Derrickson and Cargill want to negate the tension-dispelling mechanism of the cellphone. This is the time of latchkey kids and stranger danger, when every kid was warned that not to wander off because some beast with a van would snatch them up, and ... well, you know what. That's what's already happening in the small town where Finney (Thames) lives, and even though he's smart, and pays attention, and tries not to be the next victim, he's sprayed in the face with a spray by the manic, giggling Grabber, and dumped in his basement, a killing room made for the purpose. That's all he knows, until the phone rings. A black rotary phone on the wall, wires severed, and the voices on the end are ones that should never be there. It's the dead boys who call with warnings and advice, so that Finney doesn't end up like them.

The Black Phone does not depend solely on supernatural scares. It's also a film that can be deeply traumatizing because of its realism. Derrickson's Americana is abusive to children, expressed in the constant fear that Gwen and Finney live in about their alcoholic, merciless, hair-trigger father (Davies). In many ways, those moments are harder to watch than those with the Grabber, because that kind of violence was socially acceptable because it was parents against their own kids.

Some horror films have a sense of oppression. The Black Phone possibly vibrates with it: an achievement even more impressive because, after Finney's abduction, there is almost no violence. It's all there in implication and threat, and it's all in the quiet malice of Hawke's take on the controlling, unhinged Grabber. In the original story, he's just a common or garden child murderer, but this Grabber is always masked: an elaborate creation in segments that he switches between, mixing and matching, with a suggestion of the madness that plagues him. Hawke lets the character infest him, a bubbling insanity under the skin, convinced that he'll know how this plays out because it's played out that way before.

That's where the dynamic between Hawke and Thames (excellent as the panic-wrecked Finney) finds a strange optimism, like a psychodrama riff on Peter and the Wolf. But instead of forest creatures helping him, it's a roll call of prior victims, each giving both hope and hopelessness as they decay into the dark. There's never any doubt: If Finney can't hear their messages, he's dirt-bound through agony.

That's why The Black Phone never feels overstuffed. The interplay between the supernatural and the real-world horrors works because the audience inherently knows that pain will keep these spirits bound to the place where they were wounded. Even more ominously, the script lets the eerie seep out beyond the walls of the Grabber's murder chamber, and into McGraw as Gwen, Finney's tween sister with some form of second sight. All too often, younger siblings are overwritten, acting more like mini deus ex machina than actual characters. While there is still a lot of wish fulfilment in her character, Gwen is creatively foul-mouthed, but also naive, and broken up because she's terrified of what's happening to her brother. It's a rare balancing act, and McGraw and the script capture the confusion of that age - even if Gwen is the kind of child that movies wish could exist more. She's the plucky survivor archetype, and too many children never get that chance: their bravery is just in surviving.

But it's the period details that really make The Black Phone ring. It's not the set dressing, or the costumes, or the hairstyles (although Davies does sport a fantastic muttonchops-mullet merger). It's that grimy sense of the era, that way that kids felt left to their own devices. This is an Amblin adventure drenched in R-rated fear.

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