The Black Phone review: Ethan Hawke terrifies as masked monster “The Grabber”

Ethan Hawke in The Black Phone.Amazon Prime Video

Adapted from a Joe Hill story of the same name, The Black Phone tells a supernatural tale against a real-world backdrop of bullying, domestic abuse, and child abduction. Those twin concerns aren’t always easy bedfellows, but the result is atmospheric, visually arresting, and above all genuinely haunting.

The Black Phone started as the story of a man who takes children off the street, then imprisons them in a room where mysterious voices emanate from a telephone on the wall.

It was a slight, slim tale however, so writer C. Robert Cargill and writer-director Scott Derrickson added a first act, made some changes to the monster in question, and roped in their Sinister collaborator Ethan Hawke to star.

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As good as Hawke is here however, The Black Phone belongs to the kids at the heart of the story – bullied teen Finney (Mason Thames) and his hilarious sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) who bravely go toe-to-toe with the terrifying ‘Grabber.’

What happens in The Black Phone?

ethan-hawke-in-the-black-phoneUniversal Pictures
Ethan Hawke as The Grabber.

Set in North Denver in 1978, this is small-town America akin to the Hawkins of Stranger Things or the Derry of It. Finney Shaw loves baseball and horror and has a crush on one of the girls in his class, though doesn’t have the guts to tell her.

But he’s also the victim of violence, both from the bullies at his school and his drunk father at home. Meaning life is rough for Finney. And it’s about to get a whole lot rougher, as there’s recently been a spate of child abductions by someone locals call The Grabber. With boys disappearing, never to return.

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We get glimpses of what happens; a black van, some balloon, a figure dressed in black. Then Finn comes face-to-face with The Grabber. He puts up a fight and injures his assailant, but really, he doesn’t stand a chance.

Finn then wakes up in a secure room in a basement. The place is sound-proofed, there’s a mattress on the floor, and a black phone on the wall. Which – as in the short story – sometimes rings.

What is The Black Phone?

We won’t spoil what’s on the other end of that phone, but it adds a supernatural spin to proceedings, which may or may not be real. There’s as much horror happening in Finn’s home as his prison, however.

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Dad Terrence – played with evil-eyed malevolence by Jeremy Davies – misses his son but struggles to express those feelings, instead turning to the bottle.

He also resents daughter Gwen, both because she’s a daily reminder of the wife he lost, and because she shares that wife’s mysterious visions.

“You are not your mother,” he roars at Gwen, before another burst of violence. “You do not hear things that are not there. You do not see things that are not there.”

But Gwen steadfastly believes she does, and that those visions might be the key to finding her brother.

Scene-stealing sis

Mason Thames as Finney and Madeline McGraw as Gwen.

Make no mistake – Gwen is the star of The Black Phone, in spite of the film’s impressive ensemble.

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Ethan Hawke hasn’t played a full-on villain before, and he’s clearly having fun letting rip, as The Grabber taunts and toys with Finn from behind a terrifying mask.

James Ransome also brings much-needed humor to proceedings, playing a local conspiracy theorist who is closer to the truth than the authorities realize.

Davies is genuinely terrifying in Dad’s most savage moments, but he also delivers a multi-faceted performance that hints at the pain behind all that anger.

While Mason Thames – hitherto best known for his work in For All Mankind – is likeable as the film’s protagonist, seeming to grow in stature as Finn’s own confidence grows.

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But as played by Madeline McGraw, Gwen is the stand-out character; a tough, smart, resourceful kid who refuses to cower from the bullies she encounters everywhere she turns.

Gwen loves to curse, and her use of the phrase “fart-knocker” provides one of The Black Phone’s most memorable moments. While her bond with her brother is the beating heart of the movie, and driving force behind the film’s most emotional scenes.

The Verdict – is The Black Phone good?

ethan-hawke-black-phoneUniversal Pictures
A better look at Hawke as the film’s villain.

The Black Phone doesn’t feature as many scares as you’d expect from a film of this nature. And while the journey is never less than gripping, the pay-off doesn’t quite live up to the set-up. But The Black Phone is just as much about atmosphere and mood, and on that front, it absolutely delivers.

Director Derrickson expertly utilises silence and sound to build suspense in The Grabber’s house. While he and writer Cargill lend the film a great sense of time and place, with some frames infused with nostalgia for a bygone era, and others instead focussing on the horrors of that past.

Special mention should also go to horror legend Tom Savini for his design of the villain’s mask. The rictus grin pays homage to Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight, while also being a deeply disturbing image in its own right. And it’s doubtless set to be a favorite at parties this Halloween.

So if you like your horror well-written, well-acted, and filled with foreboding and dread, we suggest you answer The Black Phone when it rings in screens worldwide this week.