I love Ethan Hawke, but I’m never sure if it’s because I wish he was mineor mine . , a 2022 horror thriller now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, frees me from that choice by turning the Gen-X heartthrob into an unequivocally loathsome villain. I’m in it too.
Mix it upwith submit and add some bitterness to temper the nostalgia, and you’ve got the Black Phone. If you haven’t seen this little gem of a mid-budget genre film yet — yes, you — you must.
Hawke plays fictional 1970s serial killer The Grabber, a “part-time magician” who never leaves home without his trusty pack of pitch-black balloons and a can of aerosolized chloroform. And he often returns home with a kidnapped pre-teen boy to lock him in the murder cellar – but not before donning one of his grotesque horned masks. (While the likes ofand even have inspired inexplicably lustful fandoms, I guarantee The Grabber’s mask will rob you of your Ethan Hawke fascination, at least for the film’s 103-minute running time.)
The main character of the film, mercifully not the serial killer at its center, is Finny Blake (Mason Thames), a young teenager who lives with his alcoholic father (Jeremy Davis) and smart little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) in the blue-collar, eternal stick season the Denver suburbs of the late 1970s. The adults here are absent at best and abusive at worst. And the children bleed their noses as much from anger as they work their way up the delicate, lawless hierarchy. It’s a world of bullying or bullying covered in child-led anarchy. On top of all this, the boys from the town keep showing up out of nowhere and Gwen starts having psychic visions of them.
When Finny himself is kidnapped, he wakes up on a dirty mattress in The Grabber’s soundproof basement, with nothing but a broken landline for company. And despite the lack of signal, the phone still starts ringing. On course.
The film boasts some impressive bona fide horror: its source material is a short story written by Joe Hill (you know, Stephen King’s son?), and its adaptation reunites Hawke with writers S. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson for the first time since 2012(do you know, of all time?) If I had known about this line, I would have admitted it . But that’s where shines: It’s actually not that scary.
I mean that as a compliment, not a criticism. Instead of abounding in overt sadism for its own sake, the film instead stokes the panic of an unknown danger from the past that has never gone away. I would call The Black Phone creepy, brutal – suspenseful, of course. And yes, it’s super dark. But his jump scares are manageable (dare I say superficial?) and his violence, at least at The Grabber’s hands, is largely off-camera. Finney’s limitations? More escape room than torture room.
The film is set in 1978, which falls within the so-called “golden era of serial killing,” when crime historians say the majority of serial killers (that people know about) were active.
The current era can subsequently be considered the golden age of serial killer IP: The cinematic universe of serial killers is expanding rapidly as streaming platforms capitalize on the true crime podcast craze with docu-series and “inspired by” scripted shows with built-in audiences . (Following the success of Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story , for example, Netflix announced two more seasons to delve into “other infamous figures who left their mark on society.”) But what I like about The Black Phone — the same something I liked— It is no based on a true story.
Well done for the original story! Yay for solo films! Well done for indulging the sick fantasies of our bucket IDs of buttered popcorn without the hangover of exploiting innocent victims for “content”!
Who is on the other end of the black phone line? Well, it turns out that Finny has a touch with his sister’s something supernatural, and it’s The Grabber’s deceased former victims. The film emphasizes the creep factor of these phone calls, possibly because the test audience wasn’t scared enough, but the ghosts are actually more hip than haunting: Every ex-kidnapped boy has advice for Finny on how to escape. Grapple couplings.
What follows is a Mulan-esque second act, let’s get down to business, where I guarantee you’ll be cheering for Finny the way you cheer for a dark horse sports team with a W in unexpected range.
If you’re a serial killer junkie, a King graduate, a Stranger Things superfan – or just miss watching the kids take over the Aggro Crag – do yourself a favor and give The Black Phone a watch. Come for the thrills and the thrills, but stay for the incredibly immersive vibes. Or: come for the shirtless Hawke, and when that starts to feel a little weird, stay for the surprisingly uplifting underdog story and delightfully satisfying resolution.
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