Ethan Hawke can keep playing villains after this one cuz he’s fucking terrifying and I’m so down for it!
Set during the late 1970s, Black Phone takes place in a small town on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, where a series of child abductions have rocked the community in a way that has put everyone on edge. Focusing on a local boy, Finney (Mason Thames), and his younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), after Finney is kidnapped by a man called “The Grabber” (Ethan Hawke), Black Phone adds a supernatural twist to the proceedings that see Finney able to contact previous child victims of The Grabber via a mysterious black corded phone hung on his cell wall. Using the phone to gain insight into how to deal with and hopefully defeat The Grabber, Finney is left in a situation that sees him forced to rely on the morbid trials and errors of those that came before him as they try to help him survive his harrowing ordeal from beyond the grave; a task that’s far easier said than done.
Basically a Stephen King adaptation in all but source material, Black Phone is a film that ended up being a pleasant surprise for me, as it does just enough to scratch the supernatural horror itch I’ve had for quite some time now and mostly delivers on a premise which only slightly falls apart towards the tail-end of the movie. When focusing on Finney and his ghostly pals, Black Phone takes its time showing how hopeful but ultimately hopeless his escape attempts can be while simultaneously cutting across a few scattered subplots that involve Finney’s psychic sister, the detectives searching for him, and a secondary character who may or may not hold ties to The Grabber’s true identity.
Speaking of The Grabber, this movie is, without a doubt, made better by the evil Ethan Hawke brings to the role, so much so that I can easily recommend this one based on his performance alone. Embodying multiple versions of The Grabber depending on the type of mask he wears at the time, Hawke is cast perfectly in a way that gave me shades of James McAvoy’s more over-the-top but similar performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. Ranging from acting timid, terrifying, “normal,” devilishly clever, or just plain creepy, Hawke switches between more than a few portrayals of The Grabber, effortlessly making each one just as unnerving and twisted as the last regardless of what “base” version he’s going with at the moment.
But not everything lands as well as it should. Despite an intriguing hook and welcome supernatural flair, nothing is explained about why any of the black phone stuff is happening, nor why The Grabber is the messed up dude he is. Furthermore, and for as great as The Grabber character is, the ultimate reveal of where he and Finney are during the entire movie came across as a bit underwhelming for me, culminating in a slightly anti-climactic finale that I wish was more in line with the quality of the rest of the film.
So while this one has its flaws, especially towards the end, Ethan Hawke’s performance, a solid sense of direction, and some cool added Stephen King-like flourishes ensures that Black Phone is a horror/thriller that fans of the genre will appreciate. I don’t want to say there couldn’t be a sequel/prequel to this one, so should the filmmakers find a satisfying way to bring The Grabber back to the big screen, I’d welcome it.