The Black Phone
Dir: Scott Derrickson
Scr: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Phot: Brett Jutkiewicz
Ed: Frederic Thoraval
Premiere: June 24, 2022
There’s a lot going on in “The Black Phone.” It’s a serial-killer story. It’s a ghost story. It’s a psychic-child story. It’s even a coming-of-age story. All these stories chug alongside each other, straining credulity in an uneven film that stands out primarily for the work of Ethan Hawke in his first role as a villain.
The film is adapted from a short story by Joe Hill, the horror-writing son of Stephen King, and the original material bears a strong family resemblance – strong character development, a welcome sense of humor. Director and co-writer sets the tale in late-‘70s Denver, focusing on the work of a serial killer known as the Grabber. Like John Wayne Gacy, the Grabber abducts, tortures, and kills his victims, young boys.
13-year-old Finn (Mason Thames) is an ill-at-ease middle schooler, whose younger sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) is feisty . . . and psychic. She can see details about the Grabber’s crimes that no one else can. It’s a skill she leans further into as the story progresses.
Eventually Finn is captured by the Grabber as well, and the rest of the film is concerned with Finn’s incarceration and his struggle to break free. He is trapped in a soundproofed basement, with minimal resources at his disposal. A disconnected black telephone begins ringing, as Finn starts to get calls from beyond, from the Grabber’s previous victims.
The highlight of the film is Ethan Hawke’s performance as the Grabber. His character constantly wears a mask, one with detachable sections (designed by horror SFX great Tom Savini). Acting masked is a particular challenge, one that Hawke overcomes with elegant use of his voice, posture, and movements. It’s easy to see why the role appealed to him.
“The Black Phone” manages to intrigue but not to terrify. The plot’s turns are pretty predictable; still, this is an enjoyable entertainment, especially for those who want to see Hawke take on a dark character.