‘The Black Phone’ Review: Ethan Hawke as Serial Killer

Ethan Hawke, in 30 years, has never played a villain in a movie before, so it would be nice to say that in “The Black Phone” he doesn’t just play a serial killer – one of those anonymous madmen who live in one. dirty-brick story house with a basement dungeon – but that he does something memorable with it. His mask it is certainly disturbing. Hawke’s character, known as Grabber, is a kidnapper of teenagers, to whom he probably does unspeakable things. He drives a black ’70s van with the word Abracadabra written on the side, and when he gets out of the vehicle to pull his victims off the street, he’s wearing a magician’s hat or carrying some black balloons. But it’s only when we see it in its domestic element that we realize the full hideous grandeur of this mask, which comes in removable sections and looks almost as if it’s been carved from stone: sometimes it has a sly smile, sometimes a scowl, and sometimes he only uses the lower half.

That this is Hawke’s debut as an evil character is one of The Black Phone’s main hooks. However, serial killer movies, or at least the good ones, tend to have a certain dark mystery to them. 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 as it colors the era with a fair amount of compelling detail. We meet Finney (Mason Thames), the long-haired, sad 13-year-old hero, when he’s pitching a Little League game; after he folds the winning home run, we see the teams walk past each other, shaking hands and saying “Good game, good game” – a proprietary detail of “Dazed and Confused”, though at least the reference has its nostalgia in the right place. Finney and his precocious younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), argue over who’s the biggest heartthrob on “Happy Days” (she thinks it’s Potsie, but prefers Danny Bonaduce on “The Partridge Family”), and the film weaves a vibe of resonant epoch. of rocket launchers in the backyard, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, songs like “Free Ride” and, surprisingly, posters for missing children.

It looks like there’s been a recent epidemic of them: five teenagers, all boys, taken off the streets by the Grabber. And Finney, of course, is next. It doesn’t take long for him to be kidnapped and imprisoned in the Grabber’s dungeon – a concrete bunker, soundproof and empty except for a dirty mattress, with corroded walls marred by a rusty horizontal crack that looks like a wound. The heart of the film is Finney’s experience down there and his attempt to escape. Every now and then, the Grabber introduces itself to the boy, hinting at terrible things to come and giving him food, such as scrambled eggs that look scarier than anything else in the movie (although they are quite edible).

However, despite the trappings of hell, “The Black Phone”, as we quickly discovered, is not a realistic, dirty, fear-filled serial killer movie like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Dahmer”. It’s more like “Room” driven by a heavy dose of fantasy horror, with touches of “It” and “Stranger Things.” We get a clue as to where the movie is going early on, when Gwen has a dream revealing details about the killer, such as him keeping those black balloons in his van. You might hear about Gwen’s nightmare premonition and think, “Cool!” Or you can take this as the first clue that “The Black Phone” is a horror movie that will make a lot of rules as it goes along. Director Scott Derrickson made the first film “Doctor Strange” (as well as the 2012 horror film “Sinister,” which also starred Hawke), and here, adapting a short story by Joe Hill, he has made a serial-killer film that looks a dark cousin to the comic book world, with supernatural elements that drive the story even when they get in the way of it becoming any kind of true nightmare.

The 1970s were a time when Central American serial killers, the kind who would spread their crimes for decades in places like Wichita, seemed to sprout like mushrooms. However, they were still in the process of becoming iconic; it would take popular culture to achieve this. (“Red Dragon,” the first Thomas Harris novel to feature Hannibal Lecter, was published in 1981.) Now, however, they’re so iconic they’re absolutely standard. In “The Black Phone”, the Grabber violates the bucolic setting, but also fits perfectly into it. The film presents him not as a complex figure of evil, but as a pure canvas archetype: the psychopath with a dungeon on the side. Hawke, aside from the Ethan-Hawke-as-demon mask, doesn’t have much to work with, and to increase the fluency factor he reflexively falls for mannerisms that might remind him of Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs. “Hawke is such a beloved actor that he will likely get through this, but given the outcry this character caused 30 years ago in the LGBTQ community, you might wonder why Hawke allowed himself to drift into what amounts to some sort of sick cliché.

In the dungeon, there is another object: an old black dial telephone hanging on the wall. The Grabber tells Finney the phone doesn’t work, but it keeps ringing, and every timer Finney answers, the voice he hears on the other end belongs to… leap beyond the everyday. Finney gets a lot of clues about the Grabber: what his games are, weaknesses in the dungeon’s infrastructure (like a hole he starts digging under loose tiles, or a fridge hidden in a wall behind the bathroom). Much of this leads nowhere, but it does establish that Finney has become part of a brotherhood of victims. He is a bullied boy who will learn to fight back!

“The Black Phone” takes you on its own terms – that is, if you accept that it’s less a slick, ingenious thriller madness than a stylized contraption of sorts. It’s a gripping horror ride, and it should have no trouble winning over an audience, but I didn’t find it particularly frightening (the three or four jump-worthy moments are all shock cuts with bangs in 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 supposed to raise the stakes, but which, in this case, mostly lower them.

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