Ethan Hawk goes for real-life horrors as a neighborhood monster
The Black Phone
Starring Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and Jeremy Davies
Directed by Scott Derrickson
In theaters Friday, June 24
That old boogeyman, stranger danger, strikes again in this creepy, skin-crawlingly scary tale of abducted kids and a neighborhood monster who trolls for his victims in a van filled with black balloons.
Newspapers and news reporters, addressing the rising tide of missing children, refer to him as “The Grabber” for the way he seemingly snatches kids right off the streets, after which they are never seen or heard from again.
It’s a living nightmare for the residents of this community in North Denver, Colo., where the movie—set in 1978—begins with a closeup of a can of the local commodity, Coors beer, being popped open at a high school baseball game. Everyone’s watching the young pitcher, Finney (Mason Thames), hurling hit-resistant fastballs and curveballs out on the mound.
“Your arm is mint,” says an opposing player admiringly.
Finney’s a smart kid, into model rocketry, and he has a sweet, awkward crush on a pretty young classmate (Rebecca Clark). But he’s bullied at school, until his karate-kid friend (Miguel Cazarea Mora) comes to his aid, with a little bit of advice—namely, that he won’t always be around to protect him. “You’re going to have to stand up for yourself one of these days,” he tells Finney.
Those days come soon enough, when Finney fatefully encounters the Grabber as he’s walking home from school one afternoon. Wearing ghostly white face paint and a top hat, the stranger stumbles and fumbles out of his van (painted with the word “Abracadabra”), claiming to be an illusionist. “Would you like to see a magic trick?” he asks, before engulfing Finney in a cloud of black balloons, drugging him and tossing him into the vehicle. Finney awakens to find himself locked in a stark, soundproofed basement. Will his affection for science and model rockets, or his “mint” pitching arm and his athleticism, do him any good now? Stay tuned!
“Nothing bad is going to happen here,” the Grabber says while wearing a rubber mask of a grinning, leering devil, which doesn’t exactly reassure Finney—or us. The Grabber is a grotesque, unsettling sight, and he tells Finney to not get any hopeful ideas about the black rotary telephone mounted on the wall of the basement; that old thing hasn’t worked for years.
Finney’s situation seems dire indeed…until the phone starts ringing.
Telephones have an often-overlooked role in the pantheon of horror cinema, from the murder of a babysitter by a phone cord in Halloween (1978) to the sinister inside-the-house stalker of Scream (1979) and the dreaded you’re-about-to-die call in The Ring (2005). Some flicks have been even more on-the-nose, like When a Stranger Calls, Phone Booth and Murder by Phone.
This tale of telephone-connected unpleasantness is based on a story by Joe Hill, who happens to be the son of horror-fiction maestro Stephen King. It’s the second film built around one of Hill’s pieces (the first was Horns in 2013), and like his famous dad, he knows how to wrap a deeply disturbing yarn in the snug tentacles of the supernatural. The basement phone is a lifeline to an afterworld realm, where Finney is mysteriously—somehow—connected with the Grabber’s former young victims, who offer him advice on how he might avoid their terrible fates. And Finney’s spunky, potty-mouthed younger sister, Gwen (a terrific Madeleine McGraw), has troubling “weird” dreams that may be clue-filled portents pointing to the whereabouts of the Grabber and her missing brother. Are her nocturnal reveries rare psychic gifts brought by prayer-time invocations to Jesus, or merely the fruits of a wild imagination? Her volatile, alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) thinks her dreams are signs of genetic psychosis and thrashes her with his belt to drive the thoughts from her head. Under those circumstances, how can Gwen make her father, and the local police, understand?
Once again showing his versatility as an actor, Ethan Hawke dives deep into his deliciously deranged, big-bad-wolf role as the Grabber, drawing us in close to feel—and fear—his unhinged, unpredictable malevolence. Hawke has immersed himself in supernatural weirdness and wonders before, in films like First Reformed and Sinister; he brought home the reign of murder and mayhem in The Purge (the O.G of that franchise, back in 2013) and most recently had a brief but brutally pivotal role in the bloody Viking revenge epic The Northman. As the Grabber, he’s a real-world monster hiding in plain sight, which makes him even more bone-chilling. It’s impossible to miss the connections between the gruesome Grabber and actual mass murderers and serial killers, such as “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and William Bonin, known as “the Freeway Killer,” who murdered 14 teenage boys between 1979 and 1980.
Director Scott Derrickson for sure knows how to get under your skin, as he did in his previous horror films The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister (also with Hawke) and Deliver Us from Evil. (He also directed Doctor Strange.) He creates a stylishly creepy, eerily effective, tightly wound atmosphere of dread, tension and edgy, ever-present danger. The movie’s DNA shows strands of the killer clown in It, the flashback goosebumps of Stranger Things and hints of the “dissociative personality disorder” driving the central character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. Thinking all the way back to Carrie, the 1976 classic that became Stephen King’s first movie adaptation, there’s a similar thread of profane skepticism about the effectiveness of religion in the face of full-on, impenetrable evil. The strong bond between Finney and Gwen might make you recall the young vampire and her devoted childhood bestie in Let the Right One In.
There’s violence and a bit of blood, serious childhood shockwaves and a couple of “jump scares” that will give you genuine jolts. One breathless, bravura sequence in particular—involving booby traps, an axe, a telephone receiver and a snarling, vicious dog—will have you holding your breath.
The attention to the detail of the late 1970s is impressive, from pinball and attire to chatter about TV’s Happy Days and The Partridge Family and kids riding their banana-seat Schwinns up and down the streets. Gwen’s dreams are depicted in sequences that look like grungy, grainy reel-to-reel home movies of the era (or the actual home movies that director Derrickson used to unravel Ethan Hawke in Sinister). Well-placed soundtrack tunes from the Edgar Winter Group, Pink Floyd and Sweet rock the retro vibe, which settles in like Licorice Pizza with a harrowing side serving of doom, fear and madness. It depicts a “simpler” time, before iPhones and internet, when entertainment was drive-in movies and late-night TV…and long-distance communication was done by rotary-dial telephones.
Like the black phone in the basement.
This nerve-jangling tale reminds us of both the tenderness and the toughness of childhood, how danger is always out there lurking and that some men can be monsters—and some monsters are men. It’s a ripping, vice-gripping procedural, a chilling dip into a horrific suburbia disturbia, and a heart-pounding slice of childhood trauma drama built on a troubling foundation of hometown terrors.
So, if you’re dialed into all that, well, The Black Telephone has your number.