Make no mistake: Ethan Hawke should do much more horror.
This one’s as much about its unseen players as it is about the ones with the acting credits. Director Scott Derrickson channels the best parts of his stewardship of The Sinister franchise, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Doctor Strange into a mood-perfect thriller with an utterly horrific thrall. His authorial hand blesses every second of screen time with a reeling sense of doom whose grip on your neck never loosens till the very end.
A doom-coloured horizon in which the cast, most notably, Ethan Hawke as the killer clown/magician The Grabber, Mason Thames as Finney and Madeleine McGraw who plays Finney’s sister Gwen, inhabit exemplarily. In their own capacities, they give you so much to scream about.
Also, though produced by Blumhouse, there’re less than five jump-scares.
What we like
This bit contains spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
The Grabber: “You don’t have to be scared because nothing bad is going to happen”.
It’s amazing how true the truism ‘context is everything’ is. In this case, the context is this: A demon-masked man with a disturbing tremble in his voice – the kind that subtly hints at the unsubtle ways in which he’s disturbing – is reassuring a trembling, freshly abducted child. The child, the surrogate for the audience (unless you identify with The Grabber), is, expectedly, not reassured. That scene is just one of the many varied moments where dread – pure, hope-spurning dread – rises from the pit of your stomach and uppercuts you hard.
The Black Phone is a consummate story. Even without the foreknowledge that it’s a filmic rendering of an eponymous short story by the writer Joe Hill, one would not be able to ignore its literary essence as a self-contained work. As good stories do, it makes fantastic use of familiar and already-invested-in tropes. Small-town (North Denver) America, the earth tone-doused palette of the ‘70s, children – some of them awkward, some of them mean, some of them you instantly root for – making sense of the world around them, an idyll whose rustic veneer is increasingly under threat by an antagonist simultaneously mythical and real. And balloons. Black balloons. All these are charged with a dramatic force that makes their obviousness distinct and ripe for the mining of horror.
Finney is the bullied everykid, the one who doesn’t stand up for himself until he absolutely must. Until then, his younger sister Gwen, whom McGraw does supreme justice to, is his protector. Tenacious, adorable, and superlatively charming, she is, in so many ways, the movie. Her love for Finney, her struggle with her psychic abilities that she experiences in the form of dreams, the way she negotiates her relationship with their alcoholic father, the fact that in every scene she’s in, she exudes an indomitable spirit that so gloriously rises to meet the demands of the action, make her one of the film's most poignant rewards.
She’s the linchpin of the entire thing. The only way the police are able to piece together a pattern around the disappearance of several kids in the town is through her dreams. Her visions of black balloons; her I-see-dead-people burden; her pleading intensity – these are what lead to the reveal that, there is, indeed, a grabber on the loose, stalking the neighborhood in a black van and abducting kids, leaving only a bunch of black balloons in his wake.
About The Grabber: Ethan Hawke is, quite simply, awesome. His performance has a theatrical madness to it. It’s robustly stylised, rendered in the actorly panache that defines the calling but, as the film warrants, is unnervingly believable and real. Fringe characters come alive when they’re both obvious and out of reach, and Hawke’s Grabber is an impeccable realisation of that.
Him and the overarching story benefit from the fact that his motivations are never spelled out. Other than his choice of victims – middle-schoolers – there’s no logic to his moves. He’s just a very weird guy. And it’s great that he’s not explained away rationally or at all. It’s revealed towards the end, just before his very satisfying death by Finney’s hands, that the mask he wears hides a deformity he’s deeply self-conscious about – and even what that exactly is, is never definingly shown.
In the film’s grand scheme, the titular black phone is a plot device, a prop that moves the action along. As the means by which Finney communicates with The Grabber’s past victims, it’s transformative: It makes him grow, makes him stand up for himself. Makes him, for the first time ever, fight back.
As much as there’s a strong supernatural element at play here, the film is very strongly grounded in earthly things: Family, friendship, youth and acquiring the knowledge that good and evil coexist, even in your kidnapper’s basement.
What we didn’t like
If you like your spooks explained, if you like your killers deconstructed to the point where you have their bone marrow in a beaker, this is not the film for you. Things happen the way life happens: Without warning and without sense. The machinations of both The Grabber and the black phone are left as the mysteries that they are.
Which works for us just fine.
In the end…
This is simply a great story that doesn't strain to be a great story. Also, if you see a stumbling clown exiting a black van, don't engage.