Ethan Hawke is no stranger to horror, specifically when directed by Scott Derrickson and written by C. Robert Cargill, as seen in 2012’s Sinister. But it’s safe to say Hawke has outdone himself with The Black Phone, extending his villain era coming off of Marvel’s Moon Knight series, in this serial killer extraordinaire period horror from Blumhouse Productions.
While the film is not based on a true story — though it’s adapted from a short story of the same name by Joe Hill — it’s clear the Doctor Strange filmmakers drew inspiration from some of the most notorious serial killers from the 1960s through the 1980s. Set in suburban Denver circa 1978, The Black Phone gives off eerily similar vibes to the real stories we’ve all heard about the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, and even Jeffrey Dahmer. Still, the villain of this tale, “The Grabber” (Hawke), is in a league of his own in terms of the sadistic nature he presents and how chaotically dangerous he is seen to be throughout the film.
When you see a masked killer onscreen, you can usually anticipate a movie riddled with jump scares rather than the story itself to actually spook you. I won’t say there aren’t a couple parts that will make your heart skip a beat from an abrupt surprise paired with a loud noise, but the film is primarily frightening because of its unique use of ghost characters and children being at the focal point of the narrative. You expect a great performance from an Academy Award-nominated actor, but it’s a little atypical to see a cast full of preteens display the level of terror and drama that produces the intended emotional reactions from the audience.
Everyone in the movie is quite memorable, but the true star of the show is young Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who not only provides doses of needed comedic relief, but also agency in seeking out The Grabber using her mysterious premonitions. Specifically, she’s able to see into the past, present, and future through (from her experience and explanation) God-given dreams. An argument could be made for Finney (Mason Thames) being gifted with mutant-like powers as well, since he is able to communicate with the spirits of kids previously abducted, but it may just be the doing of the titular black phone, which is a plot device turned emotional heartbeat machine.
The film contains the right amount of blood to gross you out without making you vomit, and the visual appeal and costume design lets you know it’s a beautifully done period piece intended for modern audiences. For example, why isn’t there more parental supervision to prevent multiple children going missing within weeks of one another? Well, it’s the 70s. It was a different time, no?
Since it’s sort of funny watching a scary movie nowhere near Halloween-time, I must say The Black Phone has officially become the latest in a string of horror films released during the hot summer months to get it right (with some of its predecessors being Hereditary and Midsommar). It’s the perfect mix of supernatural, disturbing, and suspenseful. So audiences have good reason to answer the call.
The Black Phone is in theaters this Friday, June 24th. Check out the trailer here.