The Black Phone: Ethan Hawke Shines in Tonally-Confused Horror
Never Talk to Strangers
The Black Phone Review
It’s the ’70s. Beer on the baseball court. The release of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws. The rise of the arcade. Spates of serial killings: from the Zodiac killer to John Wayne Gacy. In Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone, many talk of ‘The Grabber’ – a masked magician who begins to kidnap the local children.
We follow Finney (Mason Thames), a 13-year-old boy with self-confidence issues. Violently abused by the local bullies and his alcoholic father, his only solace is with his defensive friend, Robin, and energetic sister, Gwen. When Finney finds himself in the clutches of ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke), he must commune with the ghosts of previous victims to possibly find an escape.
Enter the one original conceit of the film: the black phone itself. A conduit for the voices of the dead children, the phone literally pulses with supernatural energy. The speakers are confused, angry, yet supportive, offering Finney chances at turning the tables on his captor. As they are largely helpful forces, we never get a palpable sense of fear stemming from each appearance. The horror element would be helped if the callers were more unpredictable. The most we get from the dial-in ghosts is a sense of melancholy, occasionally successful in its poignancy.
In contrast, Hawke’s performance keeps us on edge. From childish docility to petulant tantrums, silent tears to heavy breathing, Hawke remains utterly unpredictable. The best part of the film by far is his performance. He knows when to labour a line, when to lilt over another, creating a somehow believable villain in this paranormal world.
Little quirks added to the character further develop the antagonist. His insistence on delivering scrambled eggs and lemon soda to the captured child at times verges on the absurd. A genius design move is the changing mask. The huge grin is terrifying, but at times the mouth is closed. Sometimes horns appear and occasionally we see his actual grimace. He seems to have a mask for each mood. One scene has his eyes uncovered to reveal tearful eyes.
Yet, the range of Hawke’s performance means it sometimes toes the line between comedy and horror. Many will be misled by the advertising, expecting a terrifying and disturbing film. This is an entirely different beast.
Tonally, it feels like a mess. Before Finney is kidnapped, the film plays like a campy high-school teen drama. Expect cheesy lines that draw eye-rolls from the audience and absurd insults that a real teen would never say (‘jerkface’ and ‘fartknocker’).
This tone is clunkily mixed with the disturbing subject matter, sudden bouts of violence (bullying, child abuse), and the slowly disappearing kids. As changeable as Hawke’s brilliant performance, the film never truly settles into a groove. A subplot featuring the protagonist’s psychic sister weaves in with the main line, yet never feels as compelling. Even though The Black Phone already has a short run time, it feels as though it could use some trimming.
After Finney is captured, the tone becomes darker (mostly due to Hawke), but only gestures toward horror. A couple of manipulative jump scares (emphasis on the ‘jump’ rather than the ‘scare’) do not help the atmosphere. At times, it feels more like a prison-escape film with dial-in ghosts instead of a full-blown horror. Expect a surprising smattering of Home Alone, MacGyver, Panic Room.
Even with all these caveats, it is still a satisfying watch by the end. Choppy, uneven, yet ultimately fulfilling, the plot reaches a cathartic finish. Despite a groan-inducing final scene, The Black Phone is a worthwhile watch for Hawke’s performance, as well as for the intriguing conceit. While it dials in the horror, it never hangs up the phone.